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Wilson: Johnson family continues to recover

by jmaloni
Thu, Jul 26th 2012 02:15 pm

WGRZ report

Additional reporting by Alex Muto

Three members of the Johnson family, who were injured in a house explosion in Wilson on Tuesday, are improving from their physical injuries.

Father, Jody Johnson, and son, Nathan, have been upgraded to good condition.  Mom, Judith, has been upgraded to fair.

Katie Johnson, who suffered burns over more than 70 percent of her body, is still listed in critical condition at ECMC.

Investigators have not officially listed the cause of the explosion that killed 14-year-old Sarah Johnson, and leveled the family's home.

The tragic event occurred around 6 a.m. Tuesday at 4972 Chestnut Road in Wilson. A neighbor notified the Niagara County Sherriff's Office of an explosion at the location. The sheriff's office, multiple fire departments and medical emergency units responded to the scene and encountered tremendous damage.

The family's neighbors related how startling - and sudden - the accident was.

Christine Trapasso, a neighbor of the Johnson's who lives two fields away, was lying in bed awake when "I heard an enormous boom!" From this point, Trapasso observed that an entire family's lives - and neighborhood - were turned upside down within the course of a few minutes. "After I heard the explosion, I went running outside believing that something went wrong with a new corner store being refurbished. However, when I looked down the street I realized that the entire yellow house (where the Johnsons lived) was gone."

She said the destruction was immediate. "One second, the house was totally intact, and the next second, not a piece of the house was intact," Trapasso recalled.

Trapasso's immediate reaction was to fear for the worse. Since the entire house was destroyed, seemingly with no time for the family to evacuate the home, she immediately felt deep sorrow, assuming the entire family had died in the explosion.

"I was entirely devastated, waiting for news," Trapasso said. "When I looked at the house, I assumed everyone - all five kids, the dog and parents - must be dead, because everything is flat. My husband and I were so upset."

However, Trapasso soon saw neighbors rushing to the scene of the crime, and learned that four of the five members were found injured, but alive, outside the home.

"Everyone living nearby came down and stood around the (ruins) trying to help," she said. "Everybody was being so helpful and mourning for the family even if they didn't know them well."

Based on reports the Johnson family smelled gas in its home the day prior to the accident, authorities suspect that the cause of the disaster was a propane tank leak. They do not believe foul play was involved. However, officials are still investigating the scene and have not announced an official cause of the explosion yet.

The house was occupied by five of the seven family members at the time of the accident. Emergency personnel found four of the five family members: Jody, Judith Katie and Nathan. It was later determined that they were thrown forward by the blast onto the road, which saved their lives. Jody, Judith and Katie were transported to Erie County Medical Center, and Nathan was ultimately brought there, as well, after initially being taken to Mount St. Mary's Hospital.

Sarah Johnson was not initially found. Emergency personnel undertook a search of the property, which lasted nearly two hours. Ultimately, they discovered her buried under the remains of her home.

The Niagara County Sheriff's Office reported the following about her death: "After a thorough search of the scene, it is with great sadness that we report Sarah Johnson was located and pronounced dead at the scene. The exact cause of death will be determined after an autopsy at the Erie County Medical Examiner's Office."

Two other family members, Hannah Johnson, age 16, and Sam Johnson, age 10, were uninjured as they stayed overnight at the home of a family friend and were not present at the time of the explosion.

The Wilson Community has already taken steps in assisting the Johnson family in this time of need. A prayer vigil was arranged on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at Wilson High School to honor the life of Sarah and raise awareness of the family's plight.

So too, the community has shown great generosity in donating money, clothes and supplies. A clothing drive earned the Johnsons "enough clothing to open three small stores," according to the Wilson First Baptist Church website.

Local congregations Ransomville Free Methodist Church and First Baptist Church in Wilson are still holding a charity drive, titled the Johnson Fund. A bank account held at First Niagara Bank exists for donations and collecting needed financial support for the family. The Johnson Fund accepts checks, monetary donations, and gift cards to local stores. For detailed information on how to contribute to the Johnson Fund, visit http://wilsonfbc.org/johnsonfamily.php.

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