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Neighbors describe house blast, girl’s survival

One moment, the little girl was sitting on the couch in her home. The next, the split-level house in suburban Pittsburgh was obliterated by a natural-gas explosion and the girl — still alive — was covered with debris in the yard next to a neighbor’s house.“It sounded like a bomb,” said Lynn Celia, a retired nurse who lives across the street from the home in Plum, Pa., where 4-year-old Gi
/ Source: TODAY contributor

One moment, the little girl was sitting on the couch in her home. The next, the split-level house in suburban Pittsburgh was obliterated by a natural-gas explosion and the girl — still alive — was covered with debris in the yard next to a neighbor’s house.

“It sounded like a bomb,” said Lynn Celia, a retired nurse who lives across the street from the home in Plum, Pa., where 4-year-old Gianna Pettinato had been spending the day with her grandfather, Rick Leith. Celia rushed to her front door, looked outside, and saw smoke and flames where her neighbor’s house had once been.

“I just went flying over there,” Celia told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira on Thursday. “Amidst the smoke, I sort of caught out of the side of my eye Gianna, who completely had been blown out of the side of the house, and was sitting amidst all this wood and rubble next to the next-door neighbor’s house.”

Celia’s medical training kicked in as she rushed to the little girl. “I immediately went to her and moved that stuff and got her up in my arms and tried to do a quick assessment to see if she was OK,” she said. “She was whimpering a little bit and saying, ‘My leg hurts,’ and where was ‘Pappy?’ ”

“Pappy” was her name for her doting grandfather, Leith, who often sat with Gianna while her mother, Tina, worked and her 6-year-old sister, Isabella, was at school.

After making sure that Gianna, who suffered a broken femur, was relatively unhurt otherwise, Celia handed the girl to her housemate and partner, Ellie Cravotta, and went back to search for Leith.

“I knew he was in there somewhere,” Celia told Vieira. “I was just screaming Rick’s name, trying to find some sense of where he might be, whether he was moving an arm or leg or something, and I just couldn’t find him. I was just so distraught, so distraught.”

The blast had caused serious damage to adjoining houses and blown out windows on many of the houses on Mardi Gras Drive, and the scene was like something out of a war zone.

“With each moment the flames were higher, the smoke was worse, and I just felt more despairing knowing he was in there somewhere and I couldn’t get to him,” Celia said.

‘You couldn’t find nicer people’

While Gianna was blown out of the side of the house, Leith was blown out of the front and was finally found by volunteer firefighters lying next to his car in the driveway. He was taken to a hospital, where the 64-year-old former postal worker was pronounced dead.

While Celia was outside searching for Leith, Cravotta called Gianna’s mother, Tina Pettinato, at work.

“I said to her that I thought it would be important for her to come home because there had been an accident,” Cravotta said. “She said, ‘What kind of accident?’ I said, ‘Tina, there obviously was a gas leak.’ She said, ‘Where’s Gianna?’ I said, ‘I have her. She’s right here with me.’ ”

Pettinato asked about her father, and Cravotta told her he had not yet been found.

While she was on the phone, she said that Gianna started shivering. Cravotta wrapped her in towels to keep her warm until paramedics arrived and determined that she had a broken leg that would require hospitalization.

Less than a day later, Celia and Cravotta, who were staying in Pittsburgh while the damage to their home is assessed, were still shaken by the tragic explosion.

“This young family, this has been such a trauma and they have been so devastated,” Celia said. “You couldn’t find nicer people. The grandfather, Rick, I’m just devastated. This was just the kindest, kindest man you would ever want to know. Please, think of them and pray for them.”