Pipeline explosion, death of golf legend among Westmoreland's top stories of 2016
A massive pipeline explosion that threatened the supply of natural gas to the entire Northeast, the death of a golf superstar and a raging opioid epidemic that continues to claim lives are among the stories that impacted Westmoreland County as the nation chose a new president after a contentious campaign.
The Tribune-Review looks back at its top 10 news stories of 2016 and how they've changed lives and communities.
1. Gas line explodes
A massive natural gas explosion in a farmer's field off Route 819 in Salem Township the morning of April 29 jolted hundreds in the rural community, shooting a fireball into the air and rattling windows five miles away.
A 30-inch pipeline ruptured, triggering the blast that destroyed a home and damaged several others, left a man severely burned, melted a section of highway and scorched about 40 acres of farmland.
Forbes Road fire Chief Bob Rosatti, one of the first emergency responders on the scene, said the heat was so intense even a quarter mile away that “it looked like we were looking down into hell.”
Investigators from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and Spectra Energy Corp., the pipeline operator, determined the rupture resulted from external corrosion near a weld on the line.
Spectra shut down service between the township and Lambertville, N.J., while it excavated 700 sites along the way to check for damage. In November, gas began flowing through the pipeline, a major portion of the nation's energy infrastructure.
Company officials estimated total costs of the explosion at $75 million to $100 million.
Federal officials have yet to issue a final report on their investigation.
2. Arnold Palmer dies
On Sept. 25, golf legend and Latrobe native Arnold Palmer died of heart problems at 87.
He won seven major championships and 62 PGA Tour titles.
Knowing the golf icon wouldn't want his death to overshadow the 41st Ryder Cup matches in Minneapolis that week, Palmer's family delayed his funeral service until Oct. 4, when more than 1,000 golf notables, public officials, friends and fans from around the world traveled to the basilica on the St. Vincent College campus near Latrobe.
Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson and other members of the U.S. team attended, along with Tom Watson, Curtis Strange, Lee Trevino and Mark O'Meara.
Golf great Jack Nicklaus eulogized his longtime friend, remembering Palmer's life promoting the sport and his community.
“I hurt like you hurt,” Nicklaus said. “You don't lose a friend of 60 years and don't feel an enormous loss.”
3. Monsour demolished
The nine-story tower of the former Monsour Medical Center collapsed into a mountain of rubble March 2, 45 years after it rose as a landmark along Route 30.
Crews started the process Feb. 22, using heavy machinery to pull down support columns and chew up heavily reinforced concrete floors of the tower until it collapsed. Other buildings were demolished.
The county's industrial development group spent most of the year preparing to redevelop the prime 6.4-acre property in Jeannette.
The hospital closed in 2006 after failing a series of health inspections. The site degraded into a dangerous eyesore targeted by thieves, vandals and arsonists. The Westmoreland County Land Bank purchased the property at a 2014 tax sale.
Work has started to extend utilities, build a retaining wall, install a storm water management system and create a pad.
The county plans to seek proposals from developers early in 2017.
4. Mother, son murdered
On Nov. 30, the New Stanton community and Hempfield Area School District were shaken by the murders of Dana L. Remaley, 46, and her 8-year-old son, Caleb, in their home.
Police allege Jacob Roland Remaley, 14, shot his mother and brother with a .380-caliber handgun while they slept, sometime after his father, David Remaley, had left their Thermo Village Road home for work.
The Hempfield Area High School ninth-grader is charged as an adult with two counts each of homicide and first-degree murder.
Dana Remaley worked as a personal care assistant at West Hempfield Middle School, and Caleb was a third-grader at Stanwood Elementary School.
5. Boy falls from coaster
A 3-year-old Jeannette boy who tumbled from a wooden rollercoaster at Idlewild Park & SoakZone in Ligonier Township on Aug. 11 was hospitalized for nearly two months.
Declan McClain suffered a head injury when he fell about 10 feet from the Rollo Coaster ride while seated in a car with his 7-year-old brother, according to investigators.
County detectives, the state Department of Agriculture and a third-party inspector launched separate investigations. Local authorities are awaiting a final report from state officials.
The Rollo Coaster remained closed for the rest of the park's season.
6. Overdose deaths mount
A record number of people died of drug overdoses in Westmoreland County in 2016, and the addiction epidemic is impacting taxpayers as associated costs soar.
The coroner's office was allocated more funds to handle death investigations, and a helpline was set up to assist callers with addiction issues.
Through Dec. 29, 118 people died of overdoses and 50 additional deaths were being investigated as such, coroner's statistics show. The numbers are expected to surpass the previous record of 126 in 2015. Drug overdoses in the county killed 87 in 2014 and 86 in 2013.
Citizens and public officials began carrying naloxone, an overdose reversal drug, in an effort to save lives.
7. Trump victory
Donald Trump made Pennsylvania electoral history on his path to the White House in November. The New York billionaire real estate mogul was the first Republican presidential candidate to win Pennsylvania since 1988.
Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in the state by flipping three key counties — Erie, Luzerne and Northampton — that supported President Obama in 2012, as well as driving up turnout in places like Westmoreland County, which Trump took with 64 percent of the vote. He narrowly won Pennsylvania.
Trump held a June rally in Monessen, where he unveiled an economic agenda, and throughout the campaign his supporters flocked to the famed “Trump House” — a red, white and blue homage to the candidate near Latrobe that drew interest from national and international news outlets.
8. Hribal case advances
In November, 19-year-old Alex Hribal of Murrysville asked to plead guilty but mentally ill to the attempted murder and aggravated assaults of 20 students and a security guard at Franklin Regional High School.
Judge Christopher Feliciani heard the defense present testimony from four doctors who contend Hribal was mentally ill April 9, 2014, when he allegedly used two kitchen knives to slash and stab classmates in a school hallway. District Attorney John Peck argued Hribal's mental condition did not warrant a mentally ill finding.
Feliciani is expected to decide early in 2017 whether he will accept Hribal's plea.
In June, the judge rejected Hribal's request to have his case transferred to juvenile court. Hribal was 16 at the time of the knife rampage. Feliciani ruled that the severity of the allegations warranted his prosecution as an adult.
9. ‘Hutch' retires
J. Edward “Hutch” Hutchinson, 95, stepped down as Greensburg's fire chief in November after 63 years on the job.
The local legend decided not to run for a 22nd consecutive term as chief.
He was replaced by Thomas Bell, a firefighter for 31 years.
Hutchinson joined the department in 1939. His only gap in service was during World War II, when he enlisted with the Marines.
As chief, he helped create the bloodhound team and Mutual Aid ambulance service.
Hutchinson was believed to be the longest-serving fire chief in Pennsylvania — and possibly in the United States — though no official records exist to confirm it.
He plans to spend his retirement much the same way as in the decades prior — working out at the Greensburg Aerobic Center, which he helped found; spending time with his wife, Dolores; and watching “Judge Judy.”
10. ‘Cold case' body identified
Mary Thompson waited nine months to learn if remains exhumed from a pauper's grave in Hempfield were those of her sister. On Aug. 2, she found out.
Authorities determined through DNA testing the person was Thompson's older sister, Teala, who was 13 when she went missing in 1967 from the family's home in Pittsburgh's Homewood neighborhood.
“In my heart of hearts, I already knew it was Teala,” said Thompson, who was 4 when her sister disappeared.
Trooper Brian Gross, a veteran state police investigator, went to Thompson's Pitcairn home to tell her that forensic analysis showed Teala's DNA matched the remains of a body exhumed in October 2015.
“I truly believe this news is a gift from God to my family and just lifts a burden from our hearts that's been there for so many years. It will finally allow us some closure,” Thompson said.
No one has been charged in the case, which remains open.
Compiled by Tribune-Review staff writers Rich Cholodofsky, Debra Erdley, Paul Peirce, Renatta Signorini, Jacob Tierney and Kevin Zwick.