Friday, January 21, 2011

Gas Explosion Rocks NE Philly

If you follow the national news networks you would have seen the story about a major gas explosion in the Tacony neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia earlier this week.  As with most major incidents that occur in the city our Salvation Army Disaster Services team was there. 
This incident was a bit unique for us from a couple of perspectives.  For starters this incident started off much differently than it ended up.  We received a notification from the city that originally was classified as a “water main break with an odor of gas in the area”.  The first units on scene quickly realized that gas was evident heavily throughout a 4 square block area and began evacuations of nearby homes and business immediately.  Because of the evacuations this triggered our response and so we began mobilizing one of our canteens (a mobile feeding unit that provides on scene assistance to first responders and disaster survivors).
Our canteen arrived on scene in less than 40 minutes from the original call.  By this time a full response from the fire department as well as the Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW) was engaged on scene trying to locate the source of the leak.  Our canteen normally would have reported to the scene to check in with command, but due to the large number of evacuees, we reported directly to the reception center that was setup 2-3 blocks away at neighborhood recreation center.
Within minutes of arriving on scene a major explosion took place that leveled one building and cause significant damage to many others.  In addition to the physical damage, one firefighter and three PGW workers were severely injured and one PGW worker left missing.  Our canteen, even though more than 2.5 blocks away, was rocked by the massive explosion.
The explosion then prompted a major incident response by our office bringing more volunteers and equipment to the scene.  Initially we had planned to move the canteen up to the scene, but once the fire erupted in the intersection we immediately decided to stay put until Philadelphia Fire Department (PFD) officials deemed the area more secure. 
In the end it was a good decision not just for safety, but because more than 80 individuals had arrived at the reception center, 24 from one retirement community alone.  Our team had immediately began providing comfort to individuals in the form of blankets, hot chocolate and emotional and spiritual care (ESC).  In coordinating closely with the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management (OEM), we also began registering folks into the center.  With the circumstances literally changing by the minute and the situation down at the scene turning drastically, the tracking and accountability of the individuals in neighboring properties became all the more important.
After more than 90 minutes fire still raged in the intersection of Disston St. and Torsedale Ave. where the incident took place.  Around this same time our canteen relocated from the evacuation center, down to the staging area about a block away from the scene.  EDS Staff coordinated directly with officials at the command post that was established across the street from the explosion.  At the same time, volunteers began serving first responders who were aggressively trying to contain the fire and shut down the leak. 
After more than four and half hours, the fire was finally put out and placed under control.  Once this was done emergency workers immediately began searching for the missing PGW worker who was regrettably killed in the explosion. 
The reception center was finally closed around 1:00 AM and our crew was released by the fire department around 2:30 AM.  In total nearly 20 gallons of hot drinks were served between the scene and the evacuation center and more than 12 individuals were counseled by ESC volunteers working from the center. 
Responding to events like this would not be possible without dedicated volunteers.  We would be remiss if we did not than all of those involved in Tuesday’s response to this very devastating incident.  If you are interested in learning more about how to volunteer go to
After every major response we look back on lessons learned and begin to plan for future responses of similar nature.  One of the greatest things this incident on Tuesday evening reminded us of, was safety and accountability of personnel.  At times during disaster accountability seems to be an after-thought.  Events like this one though help to reiterate the importance of having safety first in every single response we do.  At the end of the day we never know what ‘s around the next corner.

To see more photos of this and other Pendel EDS responses check out our face book page at

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