House explodes in Berne, killing elderly couple

— Photo by Kyle Fossé

This photo taken by drone shows a bucolic scene interrupted by flames and smoke from where a home in Berne had blown up 45 minutes earlier, killing the occupants.

BERNE — A house exploded on Hilltop Lane in Berne on Friday night, killing the two occupants and emitting a stream of black smoke that could be seen for miles. 
It was the home of Victor and Lois Porlier, a couple who had been trying to sell the house for over a year. Victor Porlier, 83, was a frequent contributor to The Enterprise opinion pages. 

In his letters, Porlier, who held a master’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, expressed strong conservative beliefs that were fostered by a book he read in the 1980s about the “Anglo-American establishment” which “evaporated” his former “idealistic democratic-socialist illusions from Berkeley,” as he explained it in an Enterprise podcast in 2017 about the ideological shift he underwent as he worked in a variety of government jobs.

A year ago, just after Memorial Day, Victor Porlier wrote about growing up as an “Army brat” and how his father died when he was just 13.

“As we walked away from Dad’s military burial ritual at Seattle’s Fort Lawton, on a cold and overcast December day, after the five-man rifle team firing off three volleys and my mom holding the folded flag,” he wrote, “my maternal grandfather, put his arm around my shoulder and said to me:

“‘You are no longer a boy, Victor. Now you have to be the man in the family and help your mom and Valerie in the days to come in every way you can. Make Victor Sr. proud.’”

His father had taught him, he wrote: “Be open, always curious, read, think, be book smart and street smart, and try to see the world and people as realistically as you can.”

Porlier concluded, “And I have tried, yet with many ups and downs to be sure. And maybe, even at 82 years of age, with Mom now gone as well, I still am trying to make Dad proud at some deep level.”

His body was recovered on Friday, and Lois Porlier’s body was recovered the following morning, according to the Albany County Sheriff’s Office. She was 72.

Inspector J.T. Campbell, of the sheriff’s office, told The Enterprise that a neighbor who had heard the explosion called emergency services around 8:30 p.m. on Friday.

Six fire departments responded, along with Helderberg Ambulance and the Albany County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Medical Services Division. The home was engulfed in flames by the time help arrived.

Campbell said that he did not know exactly how long it took to put out the extant flames, but that it was at least “several hours.” 

Aftermath photos show the home, which was three stories high and contained 5,612 square feet, completely demolished.

 

Cause

The cause of the explosion is being investigated by the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, Campbell said, and declined to provide further information. State Fire responded to Enterprise questions about the investigation saying that all inquiries should be directed to the sheriff’s office, as it’s the “lead agency for this investigation.” 

Campbell did say, though,that the sheriff’s office believes there were renewable-energy batteries installed within the home. A listing for the home published in October 2020 advertises a battery system for the property’s solar panels.

It’s likely that these batteries contributed to the size of the explosion.

In 2008, The Enterprise wrote about the Porliers’ wet-cell battery system, which was then made up of 12 batteries that supplied excess energy generated by solar panels and wind turbines on the property to an electrical grid. 

Wet cell batteries are a type of lead-acid battery so-named for their use of a liquid electrolyte, according to an open-access chemistry textbook, and are commonly used in cars. 

The electrolyte is typically a combination of sulfuric acid and water, and power is generated when the mixture comes into contact with the lead, according to an environmental health and safety guide published by University of Massachusetts Amherst.

When batteries are recharged, they emit hydrogen and oxygen, the guide says. The combination of these gases creates a fire hazard, as hydrogen is flammable and oxygen fuels fire. 

“If [vented lead-acid] batteries are charged in a sealed room with poor ventilation, hydrogen gas may accumulate near the ceiling and present a fire or explosion hazard,” the guide says.

In 2009, Lois Porlier said their batteries were packed into a wooden box, with a pipe to carry gases outside. 

“If [the gas] got into the house,” Lois Porlier said then, “you could have a little problem.”

 

Smoke over the Hill

Forty-five minutes after the explosion, East Berne resident Kyle Fossé took an aerial photograph that shows bright flames and a wisp of smoke trailing over the Hilltowns; Fossé shared the photo with The Enterprise and other local media. 

On Stage Road, in Berne, which is about four miles away from Hilltop Lane, Caitlin Rice was barbecuing with her family when she heard “what sounded like a really loud car backfiring, or possibly a shotgun going off,” she told The Enterprise Monday. 

Rice said that she and her family speculated about what it might be, but “didn’t really look into it further.” Later in the evening, she took a photo of her young daughter standing in front of a field, not noticing until she reviewed the photo that smoke was beginning to rise over the treeline.

Rice went with her family to investigate, but the road leading to the house was barricaded; they learned from neighbors that a home had blown up. 

“As we drove back home, we watched the dark smoke grow thicker and thicker, and flames shoot out above the trees,” Rice said. “People were pulled over, everywhere, watching the fire from a distance.”

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