Bensalem PD: Crews recover body of gas-station owner killed in explosion

Emergency responders work to recover the body of a man trapped in an underground chamber after an explosion Tuesday rocked a gas station in Bensalem, Pa., on Wednesday, June 13, 2018. The explosion also left one person in critical condition.

Emergency responders on Wednesday night recovered the body of Joe Vigilante, the 63-year-old co-owner of a Bensalem gas station, who was buried under rubble  following an explosion there Tuesday that rocked an underground vault.

Another victim, Frank Tomasiello, 61,  remained hospitalized in critical condition Wednesday with burns on 45 percent of his body.

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Family members and friends of Joe Vigilante, killed in an explosion at a Bensalem gas station, listen during a news conference by township public safety director Fred Harran. 

The exact cause of the blast at the Liberty station on Bristol Pike likely won’t be determined for several days, said Fred Harran, director of public safety for the Bucks County township.

Vigilante and Tomasiello, a part-time worker at the station, were clearing water out of the vault, which holds an 8,000-gallon tank of gasoline, Harran said. The vault, about 15 feet down, is used to store the tanks of gas that feed the pumps.

Harran said the practice of clearing water from vaults is fairly common.

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Bensalem Director of Public Safety Fred Harran talks with family members and friends of Joe Vigilante.

Vigilante, who co-owned the station with his brother, Nick, was in the vault when fumes from the tank ignited. His body was located late Wednesday under two feet of dirt and debris, according to Harran, after investigators dug into ground around the vault, creating a larger opening.

Officials from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the state Department of Labor and Industry were assisting in the probe.

“Our goal now is to help bring closure to the family so they can begin the healing process,” Harran said earlier in the day.

Members of Vigilante’s family declined to speak with reporters, asking for privacy.

Shirley Coates, who has been in a relationship with Tomasiello for 33 years and has a 29-year-old son with him, said Wednesday that Tomasiello has worked at the station for several years.

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Emergency responders work to recover the body of a man trapped in an underground chamber.

“We’re still not sure he’s going to make it,” said Coates, who lives a few blocks from the station. “But you never know. Anything can happen.”

Tomasiello was called to the station Tuesday by Nick Vigilante to help clean out the vault, according to Coates. Tomasiello stayed at ground level while Joe Vigilante climbed into the vault.

After the explosion, Tomasiello was rushed to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s burn unit. He remained there Wednesday, Coates said, with burns “all over his body,” breathing with a respirator. She said doctors estimated Tomasiello would be there for two to three weeks.

Tomasiello, a carpet installer, had been working as a cashier at the station on the weekends, according to Coates. He also helped around the store, taking out the trash and cleaning as needed.

“I just feel so bad. I feel horrible,” Coates said. “I just don’t know what to do.”

Three two-man teams were taking 15-minute stints of exploring the vault Wednesday, using glow sticks and air lines. No electronic equipment was allowed into the dark, cramped space to avoid another ignition.

“This is slow, methodical work,” Harran said. “The vault isn’t safe, so we have to shore up the area so we don’t put anyone else in jeopardy.”

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
 The explosion also left one person in critical condition.

The blast was reported about 5 p.m. Tuesday and shook the surrounding area, knocking out power to nearby homes and causing the evacuation of some. Investigators said the tank was ruptured when they arrived at the scene, but it was unclear if the rupture occurred before or after the explosion. It was also unclear if any fuel leached into the ground surrounding the tank.

First responders were delayed in getting to the vault because of noxious fumes from the explosion, Rob Sponheimer, a battalion chief for Bensalem fire and rescue, said. He described the early conditions on the scene as “horrible,” with smoke and debris everywhere. Late Tuesday, the operation went from rescue to recovery when the extent of the damage became clear.

Investigators spent most of Tuesday night and Wednesday morning ventilating the area with fans. Residents were able to return to their homes by midday Wednesday, and all but one business, directly adjacent to the gas station, were open.

Staff writer Robert Moran contributed to this article.