Minutes after residents reported a strong odor of gas in their neighborhood, an explosion rocked a bank of Irvington row houses yesterday, killing an elderly woman whose two-story brick home collapsed in a heap of rubble and debris.
The explosion tore out the back of a second row house in the 300 block of Martingale Avenue and blew two large holes in the brick wall of a third. But the impact of what fire officials say was a natural gas explosion could be seen all along the narrow street of Tudor-style and porch-front homes off Frederick Avenue in Southwest Baltimore.
Front windows along Martingale Avenue and rear windows of homes across the alley on neighboring Marydell Road had burst. Car windshields had cracked and popped. Pieces of slate roof littered the lawns and sidewalks. A gutter had been
ripped from a roof. The panels of a garage door looked as though they had been punched in.
And yet, a pink crucifix still hung on the rear wall of Elizabeth Wilson's bedroom, and the air conditioner remained in the front window. The 73-year-old woman's house at 319 Martingale Ave. looked as though it had been split in half, the right side torn away.
"My house is gone, and I loved that little house, and I worked like a dog for that house," said Mrs. Wilson, who had left home to run errands 15 minutes before the blast.
When she returned, her friend and next-door neighbor of 41 years, Marian Wilderson, an 85-year-old widow, lay dead or dying in the rubble of what had been her row house at 321 Martingale Ave. -- the house that exploded about 10 a.m.
Officials blamed the explosion on natural gas. Fire officials estimated the damage at $290,000 to the structure and contents of the three houses that were severely hit.
Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. officials ruled out a leak, but they could not identify the cause of the blast.
"We'd like to get a look at the stove" in Mrs. Wilderson's house, said John A. Metzger, BG&E spokesman.
The utility company was first alerted to a problem at 9:51 a.m. when it received a phone call from the residents of 317 Martingale Ave., reporting "a strong odor of gas," Mr. Metzger said. Within minutes, the explosion hit, leveling 321 Martingale Ave., where Mrs. Wilderson lived alone with her dog, Teddy.
City firefighters were on their way by 10:03 a.m. BG&E utility workers arrived in the neighborhood about 10:17 a.m. and shut off the gas and electricity to the three houses that suffered the most damage.
Fire officials ordered residents along Martingale Avenue not to return to their homes while utility crews searched for the source of a possible leak.
Meanwhile, fire and rescue crews started digging to find Mrs. Wilderson, who neighbors believed was trapped in the rubble. They soon found her.
"Her arm was exposed through the rubble," said Capt. Patrick P. Flynn, a Fire Department spokesman. "They took her pulse, and she had one."
But the signs of life were diminishing fast. The elderly woman was
trapped under what rescue workers believed was a stove and heavy timbers from the house.
The workers were ordered to halt the digging for a few minutes until a special cave-in unit from Baltimore County arrived on the scene to shore up the walls with huge timbers. It would be another four hours before rescue crews freed Mrs. Wilderson's body. She was declared dead at the scene.
Samuel J. Bianco, 75, and his 73-year-old wife, Dolly, were upstairs in their house at 323 Martingale Ave. when they heard what sounded "like an earthquake," said their daughter, Dorothy Allewalt, who lives around the corner on Frederick Avenue.
Mr. Bianco was sprayed with shards of glass, his head and face bleeding from cuts, his daughter said. Mrs. Bianco was shaken but unhurt, even though the force of the explosion had punched two large holes in the outside brick wall of their row house. Mr. Bianco was taken to University Hospital, where he was kept overnight for observation, a hospital spokeswoman said. Kath
leen Billmyre, a 70-year-old resident of nearby Marydell Road, was treated for a cut on her left hand at St. Agnes Hospital and released.
Mrs. Wilson said that when she returned from her morning errands, she saw her street blocked off. In her arms was a shopping bag filled with the prepared lunch she had bought for her neighbor, Mrs. Wilderson -- chicken, fried fish, mash potatoes, chocolate pudding, pound cake.
Then she saw her son, Charles Wilson, running toward her. He had earlier been told -- mistakenly -- that his mother was trapped in the collapsed house and presumed dead.
" 'Mom, don't go down there. Your house is gone,' " Mrs. Wilson said, recounting her son's words.
But she said she insisted upon seeing her house and pushed her way through the lines. Mr. Wilson wanted to go with his mother, but police restrained him and eventually arrested him, charging him with failure to obey a lawful order.
When Mrs. Wilson saw what remained of the house she had lived in for 41 years and the rubble in which her friend was trapped, she burst out crying. "I didn't know what to do," she said. "She was a good ol' soul. A wonderful neighbor."