When the Chestnut Road neighbors of the Johnson family turned in Monday night, nothing seemed amiss at the two-story house that the family of seven had called home for four years.
But a thunderous explosion Tuesday morning leveled the house, killing a 14-year-old girl, injuring her parents and two of her siblings and leaving distraught residents and local officials grasping for answers about the devastation.
"I can't imagine going to bed at night and then, the next day, your house is gone," Wilson School Superintendent Michael S. Wendt said. "It is beyond belief."
Investigators are looking into whether propane played a role in the blast – and whether the family had suspected that there was a problem – and a fire that turned 4972 Chestnut Road into rubble.
Sarah Johnson, 14, who would have started ninth grade in the Wilson Central School District this fall, was found dead by rescuers combing through what was left of the house about three hours after the explosion. Rescuers from nearly 10 fire departments had responded to the scene.
Sarah's sister Katie, 18, suffered severe burns. Their parents, Judith and Jody Johnson, and their brother Nathan, 16, also were injured. They were being treated Tuesday night in Erie County Medical Center. Katie was listed in critical condition, while the other three victims were listed as stable.
Two other Johnson children, Sam, 10, and Nathan's twin sister, Hannah, had stayed at a family friend's house the night before and were not home at the time of the explosion.
Neighbors who heard the explosion just after 6 a.m. said they ran to help.
Michael McGraw, who lives across Chestnut Road from the Johnson property, said the blast shook his house. He said that when he and his mother, Heidi McGraw, looked outside, they saw that side, they saw that the Johnson house was gone.
"It was just a ‘kaboom,' and by the time I started to run down there, the fire had really started to grow," McGraw said.
McGraw said he found the other family members in a ditch at the front of the house, apparently blown out of the house by the force of the explosion. At that time, Sarah was still trapped inside, as the fire became larger.
Another Chestnut Road neighbor, Travis Evans, was reportedly on the scene pulling the seriously injured Katie Johnson out of the house before she was caught in the expanding blaze.
Residents trying to cope with the magnitude of the tragedy were also trying to come to grips with the reality that Sarah Johnson was gone.
"It was such a shock. When we heard about it we all just sat there staring at each other," said Andrea Rosati, whose daughter is a close friend of Katie Johnson.
The Rev. William T. Lowery Jr., pastor of Ransomville Free Methodist Church, where the Johnsons worship, said he spoke with the family in ECMC and said they are doing as well as could be expected.
"They are loving, caring wonderful people. It's a tragedy," Lowery said.
He said the Johnsons came to the area four years ago from Germany, when Jody Johnson left the Army after 22 years of service. He now works in construction as a pipe fitter. Judith Johnson is a nurse with Niagara Hospice.
Wendt, the school superintendent, said the district put out an automatic call to the families of students to offer counseling for those affected by the loss.
"The family was very involved in the school. Our thoughts and prayers are with them," Wendt said. "This was a tragic loss to the school district."
Several hundred people turned out Tuesday night for a vigil at the district football field to offer prayers and thoughts for the family.
Wendt and Lowery said accounts are being set up to help the Johnsons. People already had started making donations as soon as they heard about the family's need.
Lowery said the best way to help out the family is to donate cash. "At this time, we don't know what their needs will be," Lowery said.
On Facebook, friends posted comments all day offering thoughts and prayers for the family.
"Katie you are beautiful and strong. Girl we know you are going to pull through," said Vanessa Fenzel. "Prayers for the rest of the family. Heaven got another good one. RIP Sarah Johnson."
Accounts have been set up in care of "The Johnson Family Fund" at First Niagara Bank in the Village of Wilson or by sending checks to the bank at P.O. Box 875, Wilson, NY 14172. Donations are also being taken at Ransomville Free Methodist Church, 3924 Ransomville Road, Ransomville, NY 14131 or by calling the church at 791-3885. Donations will also be accepted at Wilson First Baptist Church, 265 Petit St., Wilson, NY 14172. Support for the family has been spread via Facebook by Wilson First Baptist Church at wilsonfbc.org/johnsonfamily.php.
Although investigators had not yet found the cause of the explosion, friends and neighbors at the scene reported that the Johnsons had reported smelling propane Monday and had requested a service call. Niagara County Undersheriff Michael J. Filicetti confirmed that the family had reported smelling gas.
A representative from Noco Oil & Propane, which services the house, declined to comment on whether a call had been made by the family. The representative told The Buffalo News that "everything is being investigated at this time."
Fire investigators from Niagara and Erie counties and federal investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were on the scene Tuesday trying to piece together what happened.
If propane was involved, it would bring to mind the Dec. 27, 1983, propane-fueled explosion in downtown Buffalo in which seven people, including five firefighters, were killed.
Tuesday's blast in Wilson felt like an earthquake to many of the people who said they felt the ground shake at about 6 a.m. Debris circled the house and scattered onto the street in a more than 100- to 150-foot pattern, with insulation from the house found floating into yards nearly a quarter-mile from the site. A pole barn on the property was also heavily damaged.
Filicetti said the blast was felt four miles away in Lockport at the County Sheriff's Office.