A Homer resident and former editor and publisher of the Homer News is dead after an explosion at a home outside of Homer on Tuesday night.
Ken Marsh, public information officer with the Alaska State Troopers, confirmed Wednesday that Gary Thomas, 68, died Tuesday night at an address off Cottonwood Hill Avenue, which is off East End Road near McNeil Canyon Elementary School. The investigation so far has revealed the cause was “an appliance explosion,” according to an online trooper dispatch report, that “caused fatal injuries to Thomas.” Marsh said the appliance was a water heater.
Marsh said it’s too early at this point to know what caused the explosion. While Kachemak Emergency Services originally responded to the incident, it is now in the hands of the State Fire Marshal’s office, which is conducting the investigation. Thomas’ family has already been notified.
According to the trooper dispatch report, the Homer Police Department passed on information at 11:08 p.m. Tuesday night that Thomas had been reported overdue by his wife, Laura Patty. Officers from the Homer Police, along with friends and family, began searching for Thomas and his phone was eventually located at the Cottonwood Hill Avenue address with the help of a phone app, troopers wrote.
“One of the friends went to the area and located Thomas’ vehicle,” troopers wrote in the dispatch.
Homer Police responded to the home and found Thomas there, dead. Troopers were then called to investigate and responded from the Anchor Point post, Marsh said.
Kachemak Emergency Services Chief Bob Cicciarella said he got a personal call about the incident and responded, and then KESA was paged out around midnight. Upon arrival, Cicciarella said that first responders found an obvious explosion.
“There was some significant damage to the home,” he said.
Originally, KESA responded to the scene with an ambulance, but Cicciarella said a fire response was also called for because first responders noticed the smell of propane at the site.
Thomas worked at the Homer News from the late 1990s until 2005. He was first hired as the business manager and was later promoted to editor and publisher in 2002.
“Gary served his community well as a volunteer firefighter, radio manager and journalist,” wrote current Editor Michael Armstrong. “Always cheerful and kind, he exemplified the best of Homer. He had a big heart and brought joy and comfort to all he met. I enjoyed working with him at the Homer News and will miss him as a colleague and friend. My heart goes out to his wife, Laura, and his children.”
Thomas also served as the general manager of KBBI public radio starting in 1980. He was a founding member and volunteer since the first broadcast in 1979, according to Kathleen Gustafson, interim news director. Thomas left KBBI in 1991.
Beyond his work in local news, Thomas was a longtime volunteer firefighter with the Homer Volunteer Fire Department. Homer Police Chief Mark Robl met Thomas in 1983 when Robl started as a volunteer emergency medical technician with the fire department.
“We’re just going to miss him tremendously as a person, as the community service person that he was,” Robl said. “He was with (Homer Volunteer Fire Department) for 40 years. When I was at HVFD he was everywhere all the time, always doing stuff. The service he’s provided to the city of Homer over the years is just amazing.”
Thomas was also a longtime volunteer with Kachemak Emergency Services. Cicciarella said Thomas was a captain for KESA at the time of his death and did a lot of work fighting fires and conducting fire investigations. Both KESA and members of the Homer Volunteer Fire Department escorted the ambulance with Thomas’ body back to South Peninsula Hospital in the early hours of Wednesday morning to honor him, Cicciarella said.
“He was a wonderful person,” he said of Thomas. “And knowledgeable and a wonderful firefighter, fire investigator.”
Cicciarella called Thomas’ contributions to both fire departments over the years “invaluable.” Thomas was someone the volunteers looked up to, he said.
“He really took care of the volunteers as well,” Cicciarella said.
A celebration of life will take place at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Homer Mariner Theatre.
Editor’s note: Homer News Editor Michael Armstrong worked under Thomas from 2003-2005. He did not write this article but contributed information and quotes from Homer Police Chief Mark Robl. Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.