Man lauds neighbors' help after explosion

Mother dies in blast

propane gas leak in home investigated

July 13, 2000|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

His mother is dead, and his father and brother were in critical condition after a powerful propane explosion ripped apart the house his father built in Millersville.

Yet, Bob Sawyer was giving thanks yesterday as he stood by the remains of his childhood home - the house where his parents raised seven children and then retired more than a decade ago.

Sawyer's wife, Cynthia, who drove with him through the night from their home in Raleigh, N.C., stood beside him clutching a stack of family photographs - among the few things salvaged from the pile of timber that was once 331 Poplar St.

"I'm truly thankful to our neighbors," Sawyer said. "They were courageous. They were all here. They really came through for us."

Three neighbors helped pull Sawyer's badly injured brother, Thomas "Nelson" Sawyer, 40, from the collapsed house. Moments before, he had been in the basement, possibly checking on a propane gas leak that Anne Arundel County Fire Department officials believe caused the explosion about 7:10 p.m. Tuesday.

The father, Robert M. Sawyer Sr., 74, who had been at the top of the basement stairs, was pulled from the house that he built by another son, Lyle "Ken" Sawyer, who lives across the street, neighbors and witnesses said.

Betty R. Sawyer, a 73-year- old retired postal worker, was found lying in the front yard, where she was pronounced dead about 7:20 p.m.

Investigators were searching for what ignited the gas, Fire Battalion Chief John M. Scholz said yesterday.

Relatives told investigators that Nelson Sawyer had discovered a leak and was ventilating the home with an electric fan when the house exploded, Scholz said.

Scholz said investigators won't know exactly what led to the explosion until they can talk to Robert Sawyer and Nelson Sawyer. Both men remained in critical condition last night at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center Burn Unit, with severe burns to their upper bodies, a hospital spokeswoman said.

"No one else can tell us what happened," Scholz said.

Inspection date unknown

Gas from the 500-gallon underground storage tank had once heated the swimming pool beside the house, but the pool was no longer used, Scholz said. Investigators weren't sure when the tank was last filled or inspected.

At one point last night, fire officials became concerned that it was still leaking.

A gas odor was smelled by construction workers, who were hired by an insurance company to remove the family's paperwork and personal belongings and to secure the site. A small amount of gas was detected in the basement area, Scholz said. "To err on the side of safety, we thought it was best to drain it."

Neighbors in the tight-knit Elvaton Acres community helped remove pictures and comfort family members.

"The explosion was just unbelievable," said Rich MacKenzie, a 49-year-old building contractor who was one of the first neighbors to begin rescue efforts Tuesday night.

"It's amazing two people made it out alive."

Mike Gardner, a 44-year-old custom homebuilder who lives around the corner, crawled into the rubble when the neighbors heard Nelson Sawyer call out.

"I could see his eyes. I couldn't pull his hands at first, so I talked him out of [the rubble]," Gardner said.

Boards are steadied

With Joe Lawhorn, another neighbor, holding Gardner's feet, MacKenzie kept the boards overhead from collapsing further.

"I could see [Sawyer] reaching up," said Lawhorn, who with MacKenzie found a box spring mattress to use as a gurney to pull the man toward paramedics who arrived on the scene.

More than 50 firefighters and paramedics responded to the emergency, Scholz said.

"Everyone came running," said Sandy Ahearn, 43, who grew up across the street from the Sawyer family. Ahearn, who lives in Severna Park, had just pulled up to her mother's driveway when she felt the explosion.

"It was just like in the movies," she said. "Things were flying. It was one poof. It just blew up like that."

Many of the families in the area use propane gas for heating, because natural gas lines haven't been installed in the community.

Gas suppliers and industry experts say propane explosions are extremely rare.

Art Tate, regional manager for Suburban Propane, said, "In 15 years, I've never heard of one."

It's been more than 20 years since there's been a propane gas explosion in Anne Arundel County, Scholz said.

Unlike natural gas, which is lighter than air, when the propane gas leaks it tends to sink, often into basement areas, Scholz said.

Only one spark is needed to ignite it, he said. "Just the flip of a light switch can do it."

However, natural gas can be ignited just as easily, said Scholz.

"The best thing to do is if you smell any unusual odor is treat it like a fire. Get out of the house and call 911 from outside," he said.

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