Homeowners recovering, son feared dead in West Knoxville blast

Stephen Krzeski awoke shortly after 3 a.m. Wednesday to the smell of natural gas, an odor that could have been coming from a gas fireplace that had been leaking for weeks.

A food-company executive with a wife, two children and a million-dollar home in a West Knox County subdivision, Krzeski got up to investigate.

Then the world around him blew apart.

He grabbed his wife as she flew past. They landed in the backyard amid debris from the house. They suffered broken bones but still breathed the damp December air.

Flames consumed what was left of their house.

Authorities say it was an apparent gas explosion that tore open the two-story house at 9140 Grey Pointe Drive in the Whittington Creek subdivision at 3:13 a.m. The blast damaged nearby houses and shook neighbors awake. Windows and nerves were shattered.

The Krzeskis were taken to the University of Tennessee Medical Center. Their son, 18-year-old Nicholas “Nick” Krzeski, couldn’t be found. Rescue workers found a body, as yet unidentified, beneath the charred rubble.

Brenda Stephenson, a next-door neighbor who relayed the Krzeskis’ account of the explosion after visiting them at the hospital, said Sue Krzeski sustained a broken pelvis and a broken vertebra from the blast. She was listed in stable condition.

Stephenson said Stephen Krzeski sustained nine broken ribs and is listed in serious condition.

According to Stephenson, the Krzeskis told her their 20-year-old daughter, Shannon, and a friend were supposed to have spent the night but opted at the last minute to return to their University of Tennessee dormitory.

The blast rocked the subdivision — it blew out four windows in Joe Bryant’s house on Hailes Abbey, flung open cabinet doors at Jean Farina’s house 200 yards away, hurled the Krzeskis’ front door across the street into Larry Elmore’s garage door and seemed to lift the Stephensons’ house off its foundation.

Ed King said he thought he had been shaken by an earthquake. Dinar Sayani thought a tornado roared through the neighborhood.

Neighbors rushing to the scene saw flames leaping 40 feet in the air.

Stephen Krzeski told the Stephensons that he clutched his wife as she flew past in the instant after the explosion. He’s a big man, somewhere around 6-foot-8, and told his neighbors he thought he hurt her because he grabbed her so tightly.

“He said he was on her like hash browns on waffles at the Waffle House,” Brenda Stephenson said.

Awakened by the noise and concussion, the Stephensons grabbed their 20-month-old granddaughter, who spent the night with them, and their 13-year-old daughter and headed out the front door.

“It didn’t burn to the ground — it blew up, and what was blown up burned,” Steve Stephenson said.

Brenda Stephenson thought her neighbors were dead, saying, “When I walked outside, I didn’t think there was a ray of hope they lived through that.”

Steve Stephenson said the Krzeskis landed in the backyard, then a wall toppled over on top of them.

Bryant saw the flames, ran through his backyard, and hopped a wrought-iron fence into the Krzeskis’ yard. Others were arriving as well. He saw Sue Krzeski, who had managed to climb atop a pile of debris.

“We scrambled on top of the rubble to help her down,” Bryant said. “She’s barefoot, and it’s rock and brick. We kind of carried her down and got her to her backyard a safe distance away.”

Farina brought blankets to the injured couple.

“They didn’t seem to be burned; they were more in shock,” Farina said. “I don’t know how they survived.”

Bryant and two others climbed back on the pile of rubble and “there her husband was. We were like, ‘Good gracious, where did he come from?’ ”

After the neighbors wrapped the couple in blankets, they asked if there was anyone else in the house.

“(Sue Krzeski) said, ‘Yes, Nick,’ and that he had been in the basement. I ran back up to the rubble, to the edge of the fire and was just screaming his name. I couldn’t see or hear anything. I’m hoping he wasn’t in there.

“She kept asking, ‘Where’s Nick, where’s Nick?’ ”

Rescue workers arrived at the scene. Rural/Metro firefighters battled the flames into submission, while ambulances whisked the Krzeskis to UT Medical Center.

The Krzeskis’ two dogs also were caught in the blast. A Great Dane named Genius apparently was thrown from the house and was taken to the UT College of Veterinary Medicine, where spokeswoman Sandra Harbison said she was in critical condition. A Samoyed mix named Barkely died.

Morning illuminated the devastation. Where the Krzeskis’ house once stood was little more than a pile of brick and charred wood, the epicenter of a debris field that extended about 60 yards in all directions.

Rescue workers, including Rural/Metro firefighters and members of the Knoxville Volunteer Emergency Rescue Squad, began looking for Nick Krzeski. His parents told the Stephensons he had been asleep in the basement.

They picked through the still-smoking rubble by hand and with a backhoe. A box spring poked up from the mess, its fabric cover burned away. Two burned-out cars remained parked where the garage had been. Eight search-and-rescue dogs were brought to the scene.

The search was delayed at times when workers encountered hot spots. They spotted a body deep in the debris about 1 p.m. Authorities believe they found Nick Krzeski, though Rural/Metro Battalion Chief Jeff Devlin said positive identification is pending.

“In this situation, what commonly happens is a pancake collapse,” Devlin said. “I’m not sure exactly how he passed on, but we’re pretty positive that it was pretty quick.”

Rescue workers continued removing rubble and several hours later extracted the body. Rural/Metro spokesman Larry Wilder said the body was taken to the UT Forensic Anthropology Center to be identified. Arson investigators will return this morning.

Rural/Metro Fire Capt. Brian Chesney said the explosion apparently was caused by natural gas, though the cause is still under investigation.

The neighborhood was not evacuated, but at least three other houses sustained damage. Gas lines to the subdivision were cut off, affecting about 50 residents, according to KUB spokeswoman Grace Whiteside.

KUB began restoring service about 5 p.m.

KUB spokeswoman Leslye Hartsell said the utility records all phone calls for service and that none came from the residence or from neighbors.

“We did not receive any reports of gas leaks, reports of gas smells or any other calls of that nature,” Hartsell said.

Hartsell said KUB is responsible for the gas line until it reaches a customer’s meter. The customer is responsible for interior upkeep and appliances, she said. Hartsell said customers do not have to notify KUB of interior maintenance work unless the work would require all gas service to be turned off.

According to the Stephensons, the Krzeskis had expressed concerns for weeks about a leaking gas fireplace in their home.

“They just had their fireplace serviced this week because they could smell gas,” Steve Stephenson said.

The Krzeskis are from Michigan and lived in California before moving to East Tennessee, the Stephensons said. Property records show they bought their house in November 2008 for $1.05 million.

Both are 47, and he is a vice president and supply chain director for Bush Brothers & Co.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Steve and the Krzeski family at this time. Our Bush Brothers community is shocked and saddened by this tragic event,” Bush Brothers & Co. spokeswoman Kara Ethier said in a statement.

Brenda Stephenson described the Krzeskis as “very kind and sweet people.” Stephen Krzeski and Steve Stephenson are golfing buddies.

Shannon Krzeski is a sophomore at UT, while Nick Krzeski was on track to graduate from Knox County Adult High School this year.

Carol Russell, principal of Knox County Adult High School, described Nick Krzeski as “a good kid … always very gentlemanly. Just polite, respectful … never belligerent or defiant.”

One of the onlookers at the scene during the day was Jasmine Kahn, a senior at Farragut High School, who said she’d been dating Nick for five or six months. She last talked to him at 12:48 a.m. Wednesday. Kahn said he was big like his father — 6-foot-9 — with a heart to match.

“He is one of the best guys I’ve ever met,” she said. “There’s not a person who doesn’t love him.”

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