by sean i. mills Staff writer

WHITESBORO — A village police officer and a National Grid technician were searching for a natural gas leak Saturday night when the house on Ablett Avenue exploded in front of them.

Both men were unharmed as pieces of the house flew around them.

"They are very lucky," said Police Chief Dominick Hiffa. "They were across the street. They were in the line of fire. Shrapnel went over their heads and to the sides of them, but it didn’t hit them."

Officer Russell Jones and a utility technician, whose name was not released, were responding to a 7:29 p.m. call to 9-1-1 about an odor of natural gas in the area.

Neighbors have said that the intense smell of gas — rotten eggs — was present all day. However, officials said no one contacted the authorities until the 9-1-1 call in the evening.

"They were pretty much canvassing the street," Hiffa explained, using National Grid equipment to zero in on the source of the gas leak. Both men were on foot. "It was obvious the smell was in the area."

Jones and the technician were just across the street from 24 Ablett Ave. when it exploded. Homeowner Ariadna Tarnowski, age 84, was killed.

"It was certainly an isolated incident," said Melanie Littlejohn, regional executive director for National Grid. "We are continuing to cooperate with all investigators."

Littlejohn said the investigation has revealed that there were no leaks in the National Grid equipment outside of the residence. Testing will continue for the National Grid pipes inside the home, as well as the furnace and hot water heater. Littlejohn said National Grid does not control the actual machines installed in Tarnowski’s home, but they would have been able to shut down the gas leak had it been discovered in time.

"Safety, absolutely, has to be our No. 1 priority," Littlejohn said. "If anyone detects an odor or smell of gas, they should contact us immediately."

Anyone who smells a gas odor in their home or neighborhood should call 9-1-1 or contact National Grid at 1-800-892-2345.

The furnace, hot water heater and other electrical equipment is under investigation by Tarnowski’s insurance company. They are expected to determine the cause of the leak and the ignition sometime in the next few weeks, fire officials said. As of now, the explosion is determined to be unintentional.

Both Littlejohn and Chief Hiffa said their men are doing well after witnessing the explosion.

"He is shook up a little bit," Hiffa said of Officer Jones. The officer and the technician could have been caught in the blast if it had occurred only a few minutes later, when their search for the gas leak would have brought them to 24 Ablett Ave.

Still, Hiffa said, "I wish they could have gotten there before this happened."

Funeral services for Tarnowski will be at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Kowalcyzk Funeral Home, 284 Main St., New York Mills. Calling hours start at 10 a.m. According to her obituary, Tarnowski is survived by her son and daughter-in-law, David and Donna Tarnowski, of Indiana, as well as four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Tarnowski was predeceased by another son, Edward.

Tarnowski loved cooking, sewing and taking care of her lawn and garden, according to her friends and the obituary.