The family that lost five members including four children when their Pottstown house exploded on Thursday had moved from Northeast Philadelphia last year to the Montgomery County borough to seek a quieter place to live outside the city.
Eugene White, 44, and Kristina Matuzsan, 32, who were critically injured in the explosion that destroyed their home, bought the house in Pottstown to raise their children “away from Philly drama,” said Kenneth Cotton Jr., a neighbor whose son played in the park with two of the couple’s boys who were killed Thursday.
The family’s new life in Pottstown was tragically derailed Thursday by the explosion, which demolished their house in the 400 block of Hale Street and an adjoining twin home that was vacant. Authorities on Saturday continued their investigation into the blast, whose cause and source have not been determined.
Police identified the dead as Francine White, 67, and four of her grandchildren: Alana Wood, 13, Jeremiah White, 12, Nehemiah White, 10, and Tristan White, 8.
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The children’s father, Eugene White, grew up in the Nicetown neighborhood of Philadelphia with his mother, Francine, attended Simon Gratz High School, and met Kristina Matuzsan about 10 years ago, according to his social media posts. She grew up in Pitman, Gloucester County. They were married in 2019 and lived in the Crescentville neighborhood of Lower Northeast Philadelphia before moving to Pottstown last year.
A man who identified himself as Michael Matuzsan, the father of Kristina Matuzsan, visited the site on Saturday, sobbing as he gazed at the wreckage and wove his fingers through a temporary chain-link fence erected around the ruins. Pieces of a family’s life – a hairbrush, a sneaker, a full bottle of hand lotion – lay amid splintered timber and twisted metal.
“Kristina was so happy to finally buy a house and get out of the city,” he said to several neighbors who comforted him. One of the neighbors, Lisa Heverly, introduced the grieving man to her brother-in-law, Marc Heverly, who had helped rescue Kristina Matuzsan after the blast.
“I owe you so much,” said Michael Matuzsan, who asked about his daughter’s condition immediately after the explosion and, weeping, talked about the grandchildren he lost. He had just taken them on a trip to Savannah, Ga., Several weeks ago, he said.
Matuzsan declined to be interviewed and said he had to get back to the hospital where his daughter and White were recovering. “I just want to know what happened,” he said to Marc Heverly before leaving.
The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshal’s Office, the Pottstown Fire Department, the Pottstown Police Department, and the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission are investigating the cause of the blast. Pottstown police said there would be no updates “until investigators are ready to release details regarding the cause of the explosion,” probably in the coming days.
Several neighbors raised questions in interviews and on social media about the possibility of a gas leak. Four current or former residents said they had smelled gas in the past and that they reported the incidents to borough officials and to Peco Energy, which provides gas service to the borough.
Peco had not received any calls reporting a natural gas odor in the three days before the incident, company spokesperson Mayra H. Bergman said in a statement Friday. Peco was still reviewing records to determine whether the utility had received any calls prior to that time, she said Saturday.
A largely undamaged propane tank was also left in the debris of one house, raising the possibility that a leaking propane tank could be the source. As with natural gas, an odorant is added to propane to alert occupants of a leak.
What’s unclear is how such a large amount of gas to level a structure could accumulate in a house without raising alarms among the occupants. Though there is a gas main in the street, neither side of the twin house had natural gas service, Bergman said.
It’s possible that gas from a leak outside the house could migrate inside the dwelling through other underground pathways. In previous home gas explosions, a thorough forensic investigation of the source of the fuel could take months to complete.
The PUC deferred questions to Pottstown officials. The commission’s safety division “continues to gather information and coordinate with other agencies involved in the Pottstown investigation, but official information about the investigation will come via local authorities,” Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, a PUC spokesperson, said Saturday.
A Peco crew on Saturday dug up a “stub” gas main in the street that did not connect to any current customers, Bergman said. Peco crews on Friday also drilled holes in the pavement around the house and pressure-tested gas mains to check for leaks, part of a broader inspection that the company said was to “ensure there is no additional damage” from the explosion.
Neighbors on Saturday were still processing the trauma, the loss of life, and the physical damage to surrounding homes and vehicles by the massive concussive force from the blast.
“Still kinda not believing that this happened,” said Sharon Thomas, whose house was directly behind the destroyed homes. “I’m a little dazed.” Part of the roof of her home on Butler Avenue had been blown open. Inside, walls had cracked and glass was everywhere.
An orange sticker on her front door stated the property was uninhabitable. She and her husband weren’t home when the explosion happened, and they have been staying at a hotel. She wasn’t sure if their home would be condemned.
“We’re trying to go in and see what we can salvage,” Thomas said of the home she had lived in for 30 years.
Across the street, Marc Heverly pointed out his home’s broken window panes and window frames knocked askew by the blast. A parent of three, Heverly was struck by the awful permanence of the children’s deaths in his neighborhood.
“There’s nothing to process,” he said. “It happened. It is. There’s nothing you can do about it. “
Cotton, a commercial truck driver who had spoken with White about his reasons for leaving Philadelphia, said he was cutting the front lawn when the explosion knocked him to the ground. He went to the scene and found the bodies of the children.
“I feel mentally destroyed,” said Cotton, who was born and raised in Pottstown.
Eugene White, who listed Taco Bell as his employer on social media four years ago, was recently working night hours, and Cotton didn’t get a chance to see him regularly. Cotton called them a “really good family.”
On Rowan Street in Nicetown, where Francine White raised her son Eugene, neighbors still recall the White family fondly, though they moved away more than a decade ago.
“Francine raised him very well-mannered and very respectable, and he was bringing his kids up that way, too,” said Sasha Baxter, who last saw the Whites in August when they visited Rowan Street to attend a memorial cookout for a member of Baxter’s family.
Baxter and neighbor Fannie McClinekwere close friends for four decades with Frannie White, whom they called a caring and loving mother and grandmother. “She was always smiling, always had a pleasant word for you, and she loved her bingo,” said McClinek.
After Thursday’s explosion, one of Frannie White’s children called Baxter and McClinek to inform them of the tragedy. “My heart is totally broken,” said Baxter. “They are a good family and this is so tragic this happened to them.”
Staff writer Michelle Myers contributed to this article.