Trial continues for man charged in deadly 2019 Rockbridge County explosion

Wednesday’s trial was led by eyewitness accounts

Fire officials described the scene of the explosion as something they had never seen before

BUENA VISTA, Va. – Wednesday was day three of the 2019 deadly Rockbridge County gas explosion trial.

The third day of the trial was led by eyewitness accounts.

“I just didn’t know what to do,” said one witness who testified Wednesday.

Four people died in May 2019 when the South River Market exploded.

A grand jury indicted Phillip Westmoreland, a gas delivery guy who restocked the markets’ gas supply the day of the explosion, on involuntary manslaughter charges.

The Commonwealth said Westmoreland was careless in his behavior, and possibly spilled and mismanaged 800 gallons of fuel which could have played a role in the explosion.

With each witness, the Commonwealth focused on the proximity of the gas tanks out back to the building and the strongest source of fire after the explosion.

The magnitude of the explosion could be felt at least three miles away at Tony Bryant’s home. He was eating breakfast when he was jolted by it.

“It was like a nightmare. It really was. It was bad,” testified Bryant.

Pictures, videos, and testimonies are helping the jury understand what the scene looked like.

It’s also an opportunity for them to get to know the victims.

“He would let people keep a tab; Roger was very trusting,” testified one witness. “I was going [there that day] to pay him back.”

Rockbridge County Fire Rescue Chief Nathan Ramsey was one of the first on the scene, only getting beat by a medic crew. He immediately assumed command.

Ramsey said the heat from the fire was unlike any he’s felt before and knew sending his crew into the building was not an option.

It took fire crews 12 hours to finish their work.

Once the site cooled, Virginia State Police investigators took control of the scene.

Senior Special Agent Mark Austin testified to materials found on the scene like the canopy and gas pumps out front to the condition of the gasoline tanks out back.

One of their greatest difficulties that day was finding the deceased trapped inside.

“First, we had to locate the descendants. As you can see, there is a lot of debris, appliances, and different things that were inside the basement along with the decedents,” said Austin. “Anything that was in the store and not combustible had fallen into the basement.”

Austin’s testimony will continue on Thursday.

The defense will present its case upon the completion of the Commonwealth’s presentation.


About the Author:

McKinley Strother joined the WSLS 10 News team in June 2020. He anchors 10 News at 6 and 11 on Saturdays and Sundays and you'll also catch him reporting during the week.