The emptiness across the block still unsettles Elsa Reyes after midnight, when she returns from work to her North 13th Street home in Allentown.

During the first five years Reyes lived on the east side of the 500 block, eight row homes stood across the street.

Her son Joel would walk to school with a girl, Katherine Cruz, who lived at 542 N. 13th St.

But for a long time now, Reyes has turned the corner at Allen Street to see nothing but five small white crosses on the end of a vacant lot.

Ten years ago, a natural gas explosion leveled the homes, killing 16-year-old Cruz; her 4-month-old son, Matthew Manuel Vega; and her 69-year-old grandmother, Ofelia Ben. A couple living next door — William Hall, 79, and his wife, Beatrice, 74 — also died.

Long after the debris was cleared, the site has remained subdivided into eight undeveloped plots.

At night, the emptiness plays mind games with the neighbors who lived through the disaster. Cathy Royack, who lives a few doors down from Reyes, sometimes sees the Halls’ Christmas lights. And Reyes revisits the moment her son ran out into the bitter cold Feb. 9, 2011, to see if he could rescue his friend.

“We are still traumatized,” Reyes said last week. “You see the lot, and you see the crosses, and you remember: People died there.”

It’s still not clear what the future holds for the site. Relatives of the deceased, a neighboring business owner and city officials all want to see some kind of permanent monument recognizing the tragedy. But they have different visions for the memorial.


“We are still traumatized. You see the lot, and you see the crosses, and you remember: People died there.”



Manuel Cruz — Katherine’s father, Matthew’s grandfather and Ofelia’s son — still owns his lot, and the corner property on which the makeshift memorial stands is still owned by the Hall family.

Cruz said he reached out to the city a few years ago about turning the entire site into a commemorative park. But by then, David Dejesus had begun acquiring the other six lots and had his own ideas for the site.

Dejesus owns High End Window Tints at neighboring 528 N. 13th St, behind the A1 Mini Market. The 34-year-old said he saw in the vacant block an opportunity to help improve his neighborhood.

At a blighted property review committee meeting in 2018, Dejesus said he shared plans to either build an apartment complex or a recreation center. He also said he would work with Cruz and Mark Hall, son of William and Beatrice, to construct a permanent memorial.

But there’s been little progress in the more than two years since, Dejesus acknowledged last week. He said he’s still figuring out how to make an apartment building financially feasible while complying with building setback regulations and parking requirements.

The basketball enthusiast likes the alternate idea of building a recreation center to meet the demand for gym time, but that would require zoning relief. The site is zoned for medium-high density residential development.

On Monday, Cruz said he does not intend to sell his lot to Dejesus. Instead, he now hopes to work with Hall to build a small church on their property, closest to Allen Street.

Cruz said he is Catholic, but he isn’t concerned about which denomination would make his old home their new one.

“What’s important to me is that we build it,” he said.

Hall did not respond to a request for comment.

Cruz is a Dominican Republic immigrant who became a U.S. citizen and bought his 13th Street home in 2009 with money saved from working as a truck driver. In his first years of homeownership, he put a lot of work into the property. Just before the explosion, he had placed ceramic tiles in the kitchen, and Royack remembers him hard at work fixing his roof.


“It’s very hard because when I bought this house, I bought it with a lot of enthusiasm, and I found that I had great neighbors. And now all I see is the land.”



Cruz was hauling a load to New York when the blast killed his entire family. He continues to struggle with the unimaginable grief, but he started a new life first in southern Georgia and now Florida. He has found solace in watching his son, born a few years after the tragedy, grow up.

Cruz pays a friend to maintain his land and the makeshift memorial at 13th and Allen. When he returns to Pennsylvania, he always visits the site.

“It’s very hard because when I bought this house, I bought it with a lot of enthusiasm, and I found that I had great neighbors,” he said. “And now all I see is the land.”

Allentown City Councilwomen Cynthia Mota and Candida Affa would like to see the site turned into a commemorative pocket park. Mota said some of the residents she knows in the area have told her they “don’t want construction.

“They want something beautiful, something that brings healing,” she said.

Affa, who serves on the blighted property review committee, said the remaining property owners have kept the vacant lot from becoming an eyesore.

“But it’s not the memorial they deserve,” she said. “It still looks like an old cemetery.”

Teenagers occasionally loiter around the site, smoking and, in the summer, shooting off fireworks. Whatever happens, Reyes said, she hopes it will offer the neighborhood youth a more productive outlet.

‘Not a night you forget’

When the fire call came in shortly before 11 p.m., Allentown firefighter Efrain “Freddy” Agosto drove then-Batallion Chief Richard Lanshe from Central Fire Station down Chew Street to 13th Street.

They were still more than a block away when Agosto realized he was driving over debris. Then he saw the paper and other light materials floating to the ground among the winter sleet.

Up on Allen Street, closer to the blast, firefighter Jeremy Warmkessel realized some blue flames in the road were emanating not from burning debris, but up from cracks in the gas-saturated street.

On both ends of the block, firefighters felt the rumblings of smaller gas explosions beneath their feet. Fearing additional major blasts, they rushed to evacuate homes and the Gross Towers senior living high-rises.

“It was one of those rare calls where you can’t help but think to yourself, ‘This is not the way I wanted to go out,’ ” said Agosto, now Allentown’s fire chief. “It was intense.”

Fire crews did everything they could over the next 12 hours to save the homes closer to Andrew Street, but the gas-fed blaze was exceedingly difficult to contain because of the age of the buildings.

Warmkessel remembers the insane breadth of damage, typified by the two-by-four sticking out of a vehicle roof at North 12th and Allen — some 650 feet away. A typical fire call will generate damage reports labeled A, B, maybe C. This call had a JJ report — about 300.

“There are a lot of bad nights throughout your career that you eventually forget,” said Warmkessel, now president of the firefighters union. “That isn’t one of them.”


“It was one of those rare calls where you can’t help but think to yourself, ‘This is not the way I wanted to go out.’ It was intense.”



UGI keeps up with promised work

The blast prompted a mammoth outpouring of community support for residents and a troubling assessment of the city’s miles of aging underground gas pipelines.

In response, UGI, the natural gas utility, vowed to step up replacement of the lines under a settlement with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. The PUC ordered UGI to replace all cast-iron pipes by 2027, cutting UGI’s timeline by more than half. It prompted UGI to launch a $1.2 billion replacement program.

The company, which five years ago said it was ahead of that schedule, maintains it is on track to finish ahead of the 2027 timetable.

Since 2013, UGI has completed 175 pipeline-replacement projects in Allentown, including 72 in Center City, company spokesperson Joseph Swope said. By the end of 2020, it had replaced about 70% of the 66 miles of cast-iron pipe targeted in 2011.

The company plans 17 pipeline projects in Allentown during 2021.

“UGI continues to work with the city of Allentown to plan and coordinate work on upgrades and replacement,” Swope said.

The PUC said UGI provides it with updated testimony and documents on the progress.

In a joint statement, the four commissioners who head the state agency also said the Allentown blast resulted in landmark national changes in the approach to pipeline safety that continue to guide safety-related initiatives in communities across Pennsylvania.

Allentown spokesperson Mike Moore said city officials are pleased with UGI’s progress. Moore said a $5 million cost-sharing program with UGI during 2020-21 is not only replacing old pipe, it is repaving streets and alleys, and constructing curb ramps in the UGI areas to comply with the federal American with Disabilities Act.

“I know they have an aggressive program; I’ll be happy and satisfied when it’s all done,” said Craig Messinger, Allentown’s public works director. “I can tell you the relationship with UGI has been better than it has ever been.”

At the time of the explosion, UGI had 387 miles of cast- and wrought-iron distribution lines in Lehigh, Northampton and 44 other counties, ranking it 26th in the United States out of 148 natural gas utilities with more than 1,000 miles of pipeline, according to Swope and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

At the end of 2020, the company had reduced the old mains to 132 miles, Swope said.

UGI, which distributes gas to 670,000 customers throughout eastern and central Pennsylvania, says in its annual report contemporary materials such as plastic or coated steel comprise approximately 90% of its more than 12,300 miles of gas mains. Bare-steel pipe comprises approximately 8% of its mains, and cast-iron pipe approximately 2%.



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