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Gross Towers explosion in Allentown remembered 25 years later

Twenty-five years ago, on a clear June evening, two gas explosions ripped open John T. Gross Towers, a high-rise senior living apartment building at 14th and Allen streets.One man, 73-year-old William Kray, was killed. More than 80 others were injured.The explosions occurred just after 7 p.m. June 9, 1994, after an excavation crew damaged a UGI gas pipe while removing a buried heating oil tank.Gas leaked from the ruptured pipe and flowed into the Allentown Housing Authority-owned building, where it ignited.On the third floor, where Kray died, “chunks of plaster and glass lay piled inches off the hall floor,” The Morning Call reported. “The walls were ripped apart, as if they were wrapping paper torn off a present.”Morning Call Historic Pages: Gross Towers explosionAt the time of the explosion, Kray, a Slovakian immigrant and retired machinist for Bonney Forge, had a trip planned to Europe to reunite with his son and daughter. Kevin Eroh and his 19-year-old son Travis had just walked into the lobby to deliver an air conditioner and exercise track to 84-year-old relative Earl Bechtel when the “whole room lit up.”“Flame came through me,” Travis Eroh described at the time.Kevin Eroh was blown 20 feet out of the building but returned to the lobby to rescue his son, trapped beneath ceiling slabs, a shopping cart and the air conditioner. Both sustained second-degree burns, and Travis spent a week in the hospital.Bechtel, who suffered a head injury and broken bones, died less than two years later.Bystanders carry a woman away from Gross Towers, Allentown, following a gas explosion on June 9, 1994. (CHRIS OBENCHAIN / TMC/)Neighbors and passersby rushed to the scene to help dazed elderly tenants away from the fires that followed. Many of those who fled the 278 other apartments in the high-rise took refuge at the Allentown Fairgrounds’ Agriculture Hall, which the Lehigh Valley Chapter of the Red Cross transformed into a mass care center teeming with hundreds of volunteers, nurses, ministers and other emergency responders.Some of those displaced with no family in the area stayed in dormitory rooms at Muhlenberg College. Even more moved into the former Hamilton Plaza Hotel at 4th and Hamilton streets.The Allentown Housing Authority hired Alvin H. Butz Inc. to oversee reconstruction of the building. The $8.9 million renovation project included the replacement of more than 1,000 windows.Tenants returned in April 1995. Though the building was in better shape than when they left, some residents complained valuables were missing from their apartments. Others expressed concern that authorities had still not officially stated what caused the explosion.It would take another year, until May 1996, for the National Transportation Safety Board to issue its investigatory report. It concluded the contractor, Environmental Preservation Associates, made a series of mistakes over the course of the excavation project that jeopardized the safety of the gas line.But it also faulted UGI for not doing proper inspections, as well as city fire inspectors for not taking proper action after noticing damage to the pipe 17 days before.In August 1999, five years after the explosion, Environmental Preservation Associates and UGI Utilities agreed to pay the Allentown Housing Authority more than $3 million for damage to its building. They also paid a number of undisclosed settlements to individuals injured in the explosions.The Morning Call dubbed 1994 the “Year of Disaster” for Allentown and new mayor William Heydt. Another gas explosion in South Allentown killed a 76-year-old man. Two sinkholes left the shattered Corporate Plaza office building teetering at Linden and Seventh streets. Heydt’s inauguration coincided with news that Leh’s department store was closing after 144 years.Rescue workers make their way through the rubble after and explosion blew out windows and did other damage to this wing of Gross Towers, Allentown on Thursday, June 9, 1994. (Morning Call file photo/)
Source: Morningcall

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