The aftermath of the South Fork explosion. (Staff photo by Bill Sanservino.)

By Bill Sanservino

Although the March 4 gas explosion in South Fork resulted in the death of one of its residents, the toll could have been far worse. More than 40 families were put out of their homes by the blast, but for three of them, the tragedy could have resulted in loss of a loved one if events had played out slightly differently.

In one of those instances, Jim McManimon, Ewing Township business administrator, was home at the time of the blast, but was saved by the fact that he was in his basement when the back of his house was blown off by the explosion.

McManimon, still suffering from the aftereffects of the blast, declined to be interviewed regarding the harrowing experience, but an article on fireengineering.com recounts what McManimon and his son Dan, a Ewing firefighter, went through.

“The house closest to the explosion that did not burn was the one that was most heavily damaged,” said the article. “It belonged to Ewing Township career firefighter, active member and past Lieutenant of West Trenton Volunteer Fire Company Dan McManimon and his family, including his father, Jim McManimon.”

“Their house was blown off of the foundation, walls are bowed, windows blown out, furniture thrown about and will have to be razed in the near future,” the article said. “The worst part of this whole story is (that) Jim was home at the time of the blast. By some complete stroke of luck, Jim was in the basement watching TV when the blast occurred. It was the solid cinder block below grade walls that saved him from the blast. Jim was able to gather his bearings after being thrown from the recliner and crawl upstairs and out of the house.”

The article also explains that Dan was on one of the first fire trucks to respond to the scene and he worked to knock down the fire that raged only feet from his house, “knowing all along that his father was home at the time of the blast and was still unsure if his father was accounted for.”

Fortunately, he learned quickly that his father was safe and had made it out of the house.

Jamison and Cara Fort, owners of the unit adjacent the one that exploded, also lost their home, but they could have lost their baby daughter as well.

On most days, their seven month old, Aria, would have been home during the day, according to Jamison’s uncle, Rev. Cornell Edmonds, interim pastor of the Church of the Covenant in New York City.

Fortunately, Cara had dropped off her daughter to spend the day at her mother’s house. “We feel blessed,” Cara said. “Most days Aria would have been in the house with my sister at the time the blast occurred.”

“Besides losing their home and all their possessions in the explosion, all mementos of the celebration of their first year of marriage and the birth of their first child are gone,” Edmonds said.

“We were actually married in the house barely a year ago, and it’s the only home Aria has known,” Cara said.

Edmonds said his nephew and niece attended worship services at the Church of the Covenant on March 9 and were inspired by that congregation’s story of recovery from a disaster.

Rev. Edmonds said he pointed out to them that the church’s sanctuary had been destroyed in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy. Today a newly renovated sanctuary has been built in its place.

“We are grateful they can look at Church of the Covenant to find a bit of comfort and inspiration,” Edmonds said.

One woman, whose home was damaged to the point it has to be rebuilt, said that she narrowly missed being caught in the blast. The woman, who did not want to be identified, said she would normally have been home at that time, but was out at a doctor’s appointment.

The victim, a resident of South Fork for 25 years, said she was notified of the blast when home security company called to notify her that the alarm at her home had gone off. She arrived at the scene to find out what had happened, and she was eventually told that her home was rendered structurally unsound.

She said that she will be renting an apartment until her house can be rebuilt. Her insurance company, New Jersey Manufacturers, is paying for the cost of the rental.

“I had fixed my house up, thinking I was going to retire there soon,” she said. “I’m also a collector, and I had a lot of things in there. Now everything might be gone.”

The victim said that despite the loss of property, the worst part of the tragedy is the death of her neighbor, Linda Cerritelli, who was killed in the blast. It is believed the explosion originated in her house or an adjacent unit.

“The people in the neighborhood talk about it, and everybody cries,” she said. “We all knew her very well.”

She said that one of the things that bothered her most, though, was the large number of sightseers in the days following the accident who visited the site out of curiosity — some coming from as far as New York state.

She said she recently went out to the site to find out if a statue of Virgin Mary that she had on her porch had been damaged. That’s when she saw all of the onlookers.

“There were cars and people all over the place,” she said. “I told them, ‘This is not a show. This is peoples’ lives here. I don’t think you should be taking pictures.’ It really bothered me.

“But then I looked over at my house and saw the statue of the Virgin Mary was still there, and it made me feel better,” she said.