Debris found a half-mile from site of deadly house explosion in Beaver
An explosion that killed a Beaver County couple early Tuesday and shattered their home sent a neighbor tumbling from his couch and propelled debris that included canceled checks and savings bonds about a half-mile away.
“I don't ever want to see something like that again,” said neighbor Peter Sergi, describing flames that shot from the wreckage along Louthan Road in South Beaver. “That was the loudest explosion I've ever heard.” His family initially thought lightning had struck their house.
Investigators were trying to determine what caused the explosion that killed Ray Trautvetter, 74, and his wife, Janet, 69, shortly before 4 a.m. Both apparently were sleeping when their house blew up, said Deputy Coroner Bill Pasquale. Emergency crews found Ray Trautvetter, who typically slept in a recliner in the living room, outside the remains of the home. His wife's body was found where the house once stood, Pasquale said.
Family members declined to comment.
A propane leak may have triggered the explosion, township police said. No homes in the area have natural gas service. Fire Chief Keith Girting said the Trautvetters had four propane tanks behind the ranch house that were venting gas when rescue crews arrived.
Girting said first responders took precautions because ammunition stored in the house kept exploding. There were no reports of injuries.
Girting, who lives about a half-mile away, said he heard the explosion.
“This isn't supposed to happen out here,” Girting said.
Investigators have a 50-50 chance of determining the cause of the blast, said Richard Meier, a fire and explosion analyst at fire investigation company John A. Kennedy & Associates in Sarasota, Fla. Factors include whether gas leaked inside or outside the house and whether the explosion destroyed key evidence, he said.
“The closer to the point of ignition, the less things are moved around,” Meier said. “Think of a fuel gas explosion as a wave shaped as a sphere, getting stronger and faster as it moves away from the center. Things near the point of ignition may not be moved at all, while the outside walls and ceiling may be completely blown out.”
Based on a description of the damage, Meier said the blast was “a high-order explosion” in which “things are turned into matchsticks.”
Propane or butane caused 28 percent of house fires between 2007 and 2011, according to the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association; natural gas ignited 54 percent of more than 20,000 house fires annually during the period.
A small spark can ignite gas, Meier said. A sulfur additive gives propane and natural gas a “rotten egg” smell, but a leak outside a home may be undetected, Meier said.
Girting said residents along Route 51 about a half-mile away reported finding debris.
Tufts of insulation fluttered down from trees, resembling a light snowfall.
Ray Trautvetter's pay stubs from the former Babcock & Wilcox plant in Beaver Falls littered the neighborhood, along with canceled checks dating to the 1960s, Uno game cards, utility bills and family photos.
Janet Trautvetter worked as an Eat'n Park server for 25 years, company officials said, most recently at its Center restaurant.
“She was just a model individual,” said Jeff Dengler, the restaurant's general manager. “She was the go-to person, from, ‘Hey, I need advice,' to ‘Hey, I need a hug.' ”
The Trautvetters were married for 53 years, according to Eat'n Park. They had three children, JR, Kerri and Tami, and seven grandchildren. A great-grandchild arrived in January.
The explosion broke windows on neighbor Mark Ple-vel's home and knocked out air conditioners. Plevel, 38, said that when he moved to the neighborhood five years ago, the Trautvetters brought over a Bundt cake to welcome him. He and Ray Trautvetter sometimes talked about their common interest in hunting.
“They were really nice people,” he said.
Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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