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An explosion ripped through the former YWCA on Ninth Avenue on Tuesday morning, seriously damaging the building, which houses Penn State’s Mon Valley LaunchBox as well as the Ninth Street Clinic and other offices. The Allegheny County fire marshal is investigating. (City of McKeesport official photo via Facebook)
BREAKING: This is a developing story and will be updated with new information.
Investigators are combing through the debris at the former YWCA on Ninth Avenue to determine what caused an explosion Tuesday morning that sent two people to the hospital.
Emergency personnel believe that a contractor excavating in a parking lot to build a wheelchair accessible ramp may have struck a gas line, triggering the blast at about 8 a.m.
The building, owned by the city, is home to a small-business incubator run by Penn State Greater Allegheny as well as the Ninth Street Clinic, a free medical clinic for people without health insurance.
The two-story office building, constructed in the 1950s, was heavily damaged in the blast and an engineer has determined it is unsafe for occupancy, said a spokesperson for McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko.
None of the offices were occupied at the time of the blast.
Emergency personnel said firefighters were dispatched just before 8 a.m. to the structure, now known as the Common Grounds Building, for a report of an explosion and fire.
Crews arrived to find the windows of the building blasted into the street and the exterior walls damaged. Witnesses said workers from the nearby Salvation Army and the McKeesport post office were among the first on the scene.
Two men working on a construction crew were transported to area trauma centers for treatment, a spokesman said. Their names were not immediately released.
“We are keeping these individuals and their families in our prayers at this time,” Cherepko said. “They were installing a handicapped-accessible ramp at the time of the explosion, and the fire marshal will determine the cause.”
Emergency personnel working at the scene said that it appeared the construction crew had struck a gas line. Witnesses described a strong odor of natural gas in the neighborhood.
Barry Kukovich, a spokesperson for Peoples Gas, said the damaged line was on the building’s own property, and not the company’s service line in the street.
Crews from Peoples responded to the area at around 8 a.m. and shut off gas service to the site, Kukovich said. They also checked the surrounding neighborhood for any additional gas leaks, he said.
Kukovich said Peoples is working with the Allegheny County fire marshal’s office to determine how the explosion happened.
(City of McKeesport official photo via Facebook)
University: Plans to continue LaunchBox
The building has been owned by the city since 2017, when it was donated to the city for $1 by the Center for Victims following its merger with Womansplace. In addition to the LaunchBox, it was home to some offices for medical-cannabis manufacturer Trulieve as well as Lois’ Home Ministry and Blueroof Technologies.
Current Mon Valley LaunchBox tenants included The Fry Bar, Painting with Rissa, Care Heart CPR, Just a Little Talk and the Black Woman’s Policy Center, a city spokesperson said.
The LaunchBox was created in 2019 and is one of more than two dozen around the state designed to connect Penn State students with career opportunities and local business owners with the university’s resources.
In a statement, a Penn State Greater Allegheny spokesperson said no employees or clients of the LaunchBox were in the building at the time of the incident.
“This incident obviously just occurred and there is much to be learned,” the spokesperson said in a prepared statement. “At this stage, campus leadership is working to identify how we will continue to fulfill the mission of the LaunchBox, which is to serve our clients, the City of McKeesport and the broader community.”
The university will announce future plans for the LaunchBox shortly, the spokesperson said.
“This morning’s devastating incident seriously impacted the building where Penn State Greater Allegheny leases space for its Mon Valley LaunchBox,” the university said. “Thankfully, none of our employees or clients were in the building at the time of the incident.
“However, we do know of a few injuries of others who were at the facility and we hope for a speedy recovery for those impacted,” the university spokesperson said.
All of the tenants have been contacted by phone and are accounted for, Cherepko said.
Ninth Street Clinic: Medical equipment lost
Dr. Bill Markle, co-founder of the Ninth Street Clinic located in the building, said it appears to be a loss “as does most of our equipment.”
The clinic opened in 2007 and provides vaccinations, physicals and other medical treatments for people without health insurance. It is funded by donations and staffed by volunteers, many of them affiliated with UPMC McKeesport hospital.
Markle said Tuesday the clinic is making recovery plans.
“I don’t know what will happen in the future, but already the leadership is working to continue operations,” he said. “More information will be available on the clinic phone line at (412) 664-4304 and on the 9th Street Clinic Facebook page.”
Anyone who was planning to come to the clinic this week should call the clinic line, Markle said.
“We understand that material losses can be devastating to the businesses and organizations that occupy the Common Ground Building, but material things can be replaced,” Cherepko said. “The deepest concern we have right now is for the health and wellbeing of the individuals who were working here this morning. Beyond that, we are extremely grateful that no tenants were present at the time of the explosion.”
Firefighters from throughout the Mon-Yough region responded to the scene on Tuesday morning to search the building, along with Pennsylvania Strike Team 1, the western Pennsylvania urban search and rescue team, said McKeesport fire Chief Jeff Tomovcsik.
Originally published August 02, 2022.