WILSON – Members of the Johnson family began the uphill battle of pulling their lives back together Thursday with a few bits of good news.
Two of the Johnsons – father Jody, 44, and son Nathan, 16 – were discharged from Erie County Medical Center on Thursday, two days after an explosion leveled their Chestnut Road home and took the life of one of the five Johnson children – 14-year-old Sarah.
Also, the mother, Judith Johnson, 46, is out of the intensive care unit, said a family friend, Sam Parise.
"She's moving," Parise said, adding that Judith Johnson, a hospice nurse, has three broken ribs, injuries to her vertebrae and multiple lacerations to her knee, head and arms. "She's not paralyzed, but obviously she's in a lot of pain," he said.
The eldest Johnson child, 18-year-old Katie, remained in critical condition with burns on about 50 percent of her body, but is expected to recover. She was scheduled for skin graft surgery on her hands and one of her feet this morning, Parise said.
"[Katie's] head was shaved, but fortunately she doesn't have any burns on the top of her head. But her entire face is between second and third-degree burns," Parise added. "They are not going to have to graft her face. It's a bad burn on her face, but it did not get to her soft tissue. … She's been intubated to help her breathe better. She's not in a coma, but she is heavily medicated."
Two other Johnson children staying with friends the night before the explosion – Hannah, 16, and Sam, 10 – continue to be cared for by those families, Parise said.
Meanwhile, the cause of the powerful explosion – which shook the neighborhood and leveled the house – remains under investigation. The propane tank that was at the back of the house, near where Sarah's body was recovered, remains the focus.
Family members reported smelling gas Monday before the explosion, Parise said, adding that a utility company that handled propane at the house had not sent out anyone to investigate the odor before the blast.
"Obviously, [investigators] are looking at the angle of the propane and the complaints from the family the day before the incident [about smelling gas,]" Niagara County Undersheriff Michael J. Filicetti said Thursday.
"There's a focal point of the investigation, and if you stand there watching [at the rear] of the house, that's where they are working, where the propane tanks are and where [the lines] came into the house," Filicetti said.
The property has been fenced off and the site has been turned over to insurance investigators.
"We are done with what we have to do at the scene, but that doesn't mean we are done with the investigation," Filicetti said.
Until then, authorities can't rule on a cause, he said.
"They are a wonderful family. They are lucky to be alive," said Jody Johnson's father, David E. Johnson, 78, who lives in Niagara County, as does an older and a younger sister.
Judith's extended family is coming from out of town to help, Parise said.
Help for the family continued to pour in from far and wide, said the Rev. William T. Lowery Jr., pastor of the Ransomville Free Methodist Church, where the Johnsons worship. Lowery has been at the hospital each day with the family.
"I've had six people offer them houses," he said. "We've had a church offer to rebuild an entire house at no cost. We've had a modular home company offer to rebuild a home. We've had someone offer to pay for all funeral expenses [for Sarah Johnson]. We've had Buffalo Bills respond.
"I've seen responses before, but I haven't seen it to this level."
The Wilson community, in particular, is caring for the family.
Nearly 1,000 people packed the Wilson High School stadium at a prayer vigil Tuesday, hours after the explosion, and donated bags of items for the Johnsons have piled up at area churches.
Gift cards and cash can be donated to the Wilson First Baptist Church, 265 Pettit St., Wilson, NY 14172 or the Ransomville Free Methodist Church, 3924 Ransomville Road, Ransomville, NY 14131. Cash and checks can be donated to the Johnson Family Fund at any First Niagara Bank.
Parise, a lifelong friend of Jody Johnson's, said the assistance will be needed.
"We know all those donations are out there, but [Jody Johnson] doesn't even have a pair of shoes to leave the hospital with," Parise said.
The family also is going to need some space, particularly as attention has turned toward Sarah, Lowery said.
Sarah's track coach, Jaime Lepsch, said she was a phenomenal runner, qualifying for state sectionals as an eighth-grader.
Lepsch is forming "Team Johnson" in the combined 5K Hospice Dash and half-marathon Mighty Niagara Run on Sept. 22 in Lewiston and Porter. The team will raise money for Niagara Hospice, where Judith Johnson works as a nurse, as well as pledges for the family. To register for Team Johnson, contact Lepsch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
No funeral arrangements had been announced as of late Thursday.
"One, they need a chance to be a family and be together," Lowery said. "Two, they need to heal. Three, as part of the healing process, they need your prayers."
Lowery described a touching moment in the hospital Wednesday, when the family had a chance to be together, as Jody and Judith Johnson visited Katie at her bedside.
"It was incredible," Lowery said, "and actually I stepped back.
"Those are their moments, not mine."