State Fire Marshal Bruce Dahlem and Du Quoin Fire Chief Bob Shaw may never know the exact cause of an unimaginable explosion at 9:25 a.m. Sunday that leveled the home of Harold Pundsack, 83, on South Lake Drive in the upscale Fair Acres subdivision.
The explosion—heard as far away as Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park at Rend Lake—claimed Pundsack's life and carried a 200-foot tall plume of debris over a four-block area.
As daughter Debbie Olinger was escorted by friends and firemen up to what was left of her father's home—and there was very little—she somehow found solace in his life well lived as those friends talked of his infectious smile, the fact that he never met a stranger and how he loved to dance. Oh, how he loved to dance.
In fact, he was at Derby's Community Center, once the Perry County Senior Center, only last weekend doing what he loves to do—dance.
Pundsack was a widower, losing his wife several years ago.
It makes no sense that his great life as a veteran of the 101st Airborne Division and 502nd Infantry Division (D Company 3rd Platoon) after WWII should end with military and family photos raining down on the neighborhood that surrounded his brick home.
Longtime neighbor Don Barrett—the back of his home faced the side of Pundsack's home—said he and wife Loretta were sitting in their living room during the explosion. "It was like a bomb going off," he said. The explosion blew the glass out of their kitchen and garage windows and damaged the set of patio doors into the living room. "It would have been bad if we had been in the kitchen; there is glass everywhere."
Firemen say the explosion blew a window out of a home across the street, hitting the back of a chair that a woman was sitting in.
EMTs from the Pinckneyville Ambulance Service painstakingly and very thoughtfully went door-to-door to see if anyone was hurt.
Shortly after the blast Barrett moved his wife Loretta to the porch of their backyard shop. Above her, debris from the blast had ripped the blades off of an outside ceiling fan and damaged the wooden ceiling of that porch.
To the Barrett's' immediate south on Madison Street, the blast tore out the back door and windows of the Korbar home, bouncing the frame from the foundation. It is heavily damaged.
The Bob and Barb Conte home next door on South Lake Drive saw damage, as did the Chuck Smith house across the street. Northeast across the street the Walter Naumer and Mary Lou Morris homes were hit by debris.
Damage to the 10-12 homes in the neighborhood impacted by the explosion will be assessed in the coming days, but state fire marshal Dahlem was asking everyone to leave the things they find in their yards alone. Anything lying there may be evidence as to what caused the explosion.
A neighbor who was not immediately identified told investigators there was a smell of natural gas outside before the blast. While a gas leak is the focus of the investigation, tracking down the source of the ignition may be impossible to determine.
The sound was so far-reaching, EMTs at the Pinckneyville Ambulance Service on West Main Street in Du Quoin thought somebody's vehicle had hit the building. Those attending bible study at Bethel Lutheran Church on Rt. 152 heard the explosion.
An employee of Wal-Mart on the west side of Rt. 51 said the explosion moved the lunch meat slicer in the deli department. The windows rattled. Odds and ends from the ceiling came down. The windows shook and shoppers on the parking lot saw their cars move.
"When we heard the explosion I got halfway to the double doors and looked out. If there was a fire to begin with I couldn't see it," Barrett said, He said he saw the first flames rising up from what was left of the southwest corner of the house. His backyard was covered with splintered wood and glass.
"Every now and then Harold and I would talk across the fence," said Barrett. They hadn't talked for several days. But, as he pulled away from his house and headed north up the street Pundsack would wave or tap his horn any time he saw Barrett in the yard.
"He was a good neighbor."
A Du Quoin police officer was first on the scene and immediately behind him a Du Quoin fire truck, and then another. Neighbors were already coming outside. Dowell and Tamaroa firemen responded, and as the morning wore on three units from the Pinckneyville Ambulance Service arrived. Emergency Services director David Searby was on scene. Eventually ESDA's mobile command center was set up on Madison Street. More police units from the county and state arrived as a perimeter around the blast site was set up.
As a handful of much smaller explosions and popping noises rose out of the fire, homes were evacuated and residents who did not have an immediate place to go were asked to go to the nearby American Legion.
There was an ominous heartbreak that overcame the neighborhood as they saw that Pundsack's pickup truck and SUV were still parked at the house. His daughter said her dad attended Sacred Heart Church, but had not gone to church Sunday morning.
By late morning members of the American Red Cross arrived and worked from the American Legion to feed and comfort those who had come there, as well as first responders. They provided food and water to everyone—all day. Red Cross volunteers went to every home in the area asking about how they could help, if they needed windows boarded or pets taken care of. At every turn, they were amazing.
A parade of both concerned friends and curiosity seekers crisscrossed the area.
By noon, members of Southern Illinois MABAS (Mutual Aid Box Alarm System) and members of their TRT (Technical Rescue Team) from Marion, Carbondale, Murphysboro and other area towns began arriving. Dowell firefighters were staffing the Du Quoin fire station. A Washington County Ambulance crew was helping cover the Pinckneyville Ambulance Service office in Pinckneyville.
TRT members were clearly in a recovery mode and systematically picked apart the debris from the explosion.
Mr. Pundsack was found by mid-afternoon. Family members at the American Legion were notified. His remains were taken to the Searby Funeral Home in Du Quoin as the investigation continues. It was now also a case for coroner Paul Searby.
In the face of such an unthinkable emergency, David Searby said that all first responders did their job well.
By 5 p.m., the Du Quoin Street Department was beginning to clear South Lake Drive of debris to reopen the street. . Police began taking down roadblocks at intersections and the fire marshal asked everyone to leave the property as a matter of safety to avoid stepping on nails or twisting ankles. Du Quoin firemen returned to the station at 6 p.m. with an evening full of paperwork ahead of them. City officers were to secure the property with an eye toward protecting any valuables that may have survived the explosion as all were hoping for even one answer this morning.
Understanding the Man & The Great Loss
You need to understand the life of this man to fully understand the loss.
Mr. Pundsack entered the military in the spring of 1951 and married wife Lola Walker in June after basic training. Pundsack was in the specialized Adjutant General Section, which trafficked the mail in and out of Europe for American troops.
He was also in charge of the sometimes-classified diplomatic mail, referred to as "hi-cog" mail. He was in charge of transferring mail from train to train in Frankfurt, German.
His wife came and lived with him for a year while he was there. It was an uncertain time following World War II and he often helped shoulder the work of getting troops and dependents safely out of Wiesbaden, Germany and back to the states.
Pundsack himself returned home on Dec. 23, 1953 after two years of service. Still, he enlisted in the reserve for several years after that.
Pundsack worked at United Electric Coal Co.'s mine in Du Quoin for 30 years, then Coca-Cola Company for 10 years, and became an EMT for the coal mines. After he retired from the mines in 1993, he became an aide on Du Quoin school buses and worked with handicapped children.
The Pundsacks lived their lives from that home on South Lake Drive for many years. It was a home built in the late 1960s as part of a subdivision development begun because of the P.R. Mallory, Inc. presence in Du Quoin. The home was originally built by Harry Martin, an employee of Southern Illinois Petrol.
Sunday's events will live with all of us for a long time to come.