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Nebraska running back Mikale Wilbon (21) runs for a first down in the first quarter against Rutgers' defensive back Saquan Hampton on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

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Cleanup beginning at explosion site; investigation continues

Two months after an explosion leveled the home of Jim and Jeanne Jasa on South 78th Street, the rubbled remains are finally being removed.

Neighbors had complained to city officials and American Family Insurance about lack of action in addressing the fenced-in debris at 5601 S. 78th St. On Thursday, a spokeswoman for the home insurer said the company has ordered cleanup to begin as soon as possible.

Dumpsters have arrived at the site, and contractors could begin removing debris Friday, Linda Wagener said. She didn’t know how long the job would take.

“We feel it’s urgent for us," she said. "Our hearts go out to the Jasas and the people in the neighborhood for this tragedy."

Jeanne Jasa died as a result of the Aug. 14 explosion. Her husband remained hospitalized Thursday.

It's not clear why the company waited. Lincoln police continue to probe what caused the natural gas-fed blast, but investigators finished their on-site work within about two weeks and have released the property to the insurance company, Chief Jeff Bliemeister said.

Speaking generally, because he doesn’t sell American Family polices, Lincoln broker Dave Kirby said insurance companies typically wouldn't cover self-inflicted, intentional damages.

“A guy can’t take a hammer to his roof and try to make hail dents and expect to get paid by the insurance company,” he said Wednesday, before American Family went ahead with the cleanup.

On Thursday, Wagener wouldn’t address what her company’s own investigation determined or reveal the reasons behind the delay, citing customer confidentiality.

“We were waiting to get some appropriate permissions,” she said.

Police and fire investigators scoured the rubble looking for evidence in the days after the blast, which rained debris throughout the neighborhood.

Testing by the State Fire Marshal's Office a day after the explosion helped rule out an external gas leak as the cause, and investigators concluded natural gas provider Black Hills Energy wasn't responsible.

Chief Lincoln Fire Investigator Bill Moody has said the explosion's size indicates the gas, which has a chemical marker that smells like rotten eggs, had been leaking for hours.

Police believe the blast was ignited from inside the home and have said they are not looking for anyone else in connection with the ignition.

They are treating the case as a criminal probe until they can pin down what happened before the blast threw Jim and Jeanne Jasa out of the house they'd owned for 20 years.

"The complexity of this, based on the level of destruction, is immense,” Bliemeister said.

Federal law enforcement is involved, too.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives joined the investigation a few weeks after the explosion, and some evidence is being tested at the ATF's forensic explosive laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, spokesman John Ham said Thursday. 

The laboratory conducts analysis in arson, murder and accidental fire investigations, according to the ATF website.

Physical evidence from the explosion, along with financial and cellphone records, might be crucial in determining what happened before the blast, because police have not been able to interview Jim Jasa.

Investigators plan to meet with prosecutors next week to discuss the status of their probe, the police chief said.

Ben Pankonin, who has lived east of the Jasas for eight years, still regularly spots strangers driving through the neighborhood to check out the rubble. 

The delayed cleanup frustrated Pankonin and his neighbors. Eastview Drive, a side road adjacent to the Jasas' house, is still barricaded and closed to traffic.

"It's sad that the scenario happened as it did," the 37-year-old said. "We hope that we can have a little bit of help putting (the neighborhood) back together."

He understands the circumstances surrounding the property and the ongoing investigation are complicated: "It’s a hard one to swallow who ends up paying," Pankonin said.

The city had been preparing to take care of the problem itself, said Chad Blahak, director of building and safety.

“This week, we had just been talking about that we need to get some movement here,” he said. “We started to put the plan in place to start the city process to do that.”

But that takes time. First, the city must give the property owner warning, and a chance to get a demolition permit and begin the cleanup process. It also takes money.

“It takes taxpayer dollars to do the demolition if the city has to do it. It’s always best to have the property owners take the responsibility to clean it up.”

When the city does pay for a demolition, it places a lien on the property, but it doesn’t always recoup its costs, he said.

Pankonin praised the responsiveness of city officials to neighbor concerns about the lot.

Some of his neighbors still haven't returned to their houses because they were deemed uninhabitable from damage sustained that day, he said.

"We all have a lot of work to do to rebuild the community," he said. "But, yeah, I think it's a big step in the right direction."

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Penitentiary incident more serious than reported, staffer says

An incident at the Nebraska State Penitentiary on Tuesday required tower staff to fire a smoke canister round to disperse a crowd of inmates, according to a prison official.

Information about the 6 p.m. incident originally came from a staff member who contacted the media concerned the public would not hear about its seriousness.

When contacted Wednesday, Dawn-Renee Smith, Department of Correctional Services spokeswoman, described the incident as two separate inmate fights that included two people in each fight. She said five inmates were subsequently restrained and removed from the penitentiary yard.

But others reported more inmates were involved in multiple fights and threats of violence.

No news release was issued because no staff members were seriously injured, Smith said. 

She said that when inmates were returned to their cells, four of them refused to go and had to be restrained. The prison entered a modified lockdown 40 minutes after the incident, and the prison returned to normal operations by breakfast time Wednesday.

While Tuesday’s melee was eventually controlled by staff, it was a frightening ordeal, the employee said.

Nebraska prisons have seen a riot and numerous other violent incidents since May 2015, including multiple prisoner deaths. Increased staff assaults, severe staff shortages and serious overcrowded conditions have been reported.

In August, ACLU of Nebraska filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 11 prisoners, and sought class certification for all current and future inmates. It asked the Department of Correctional Services and the Board of Parole to immediately address crowding and the lack of adequate health care and accommodations for prisoners with disabilities.

Two staffers, who asked not to be named out of concerns for their jobs, told the Journal Star there have been many staff assaults that aren't being reported to the public.

The staffer who voiced the initial concerns gave this version of the incident at the penitentiary:

After one fight started Tuesday evening and those inmates were restrained, other prisoners attacked those inmates and staffers who had responded.  

During the melee, the employee saw staffers in two different areas of the yard on the ground wrestling with inmates, with other fights also having broken out.

Dozens of other inmates were gathered around the area of the fights, the staffer said. 

Several were yelling about taking over a housing unit and encouraging others to join them, the staffer said. A staff member in a main tower fired the smoke canister, which scattered inmates. That allowed staff members in the yard to gain control and round up and restrain inmates.

Eventually, the staffer said, many inmates were in handcuffs or leg restraints, and covered in pepper spray. The employee saw at least several broken windows. And staff found at least four homemade knives.

Administrative staff from the prison and the department's central office showed up to address the incident, the staffer said.

Smith stood by her account of the incident Thursday, saying it was based on written reports and evidence.

Inspector General for Corrections Doug Koebernick said two people had also reported to him there were multiple altercations Tuesday.

He has asked for video and any written reports from the incident and will review them, he said.