Blast levels home, kills 2

10 nearby houses in Silver Spring damaged by explosion

`Just absolutely incredible'

Investigation `leaning toward natural gas' as cause, authorities say

January 02, 2001|By Greg Garland and Tom Pelton | Greg Garland and Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

SILVER SPRING - A man and woman were killed early yesterday in an explosion that destroyed one house, damaged 10 others and sent plywood and shingles flying into trees and onto rooftops in a tidy suburban neighborhood.

The blast at 8:45 a.m. leveled a three-bedroom house in the 1100 block of Cresthaven Drive, seriously damaged two adjacent houses and shattered windows, ripped off siding and caused other damage to several nearby homes, authorities said.

The cause of the explosion remained under investigation late yesterday, but authorities said they are looking into whether a natural gas leak might have caused the explosion.

"The investigation is leaning toward natural gas as a cause," said Officer Derek Baliles, spokesman for the Montgomery County Police Department. "We don't know for certain what happened, but it doesn't look like it was an assassination ... or any kind of criminal incident."

Rescue workers raking through the rubble found two bodies burned beyond recognition, one at the front of the house and the other at the back.

Property records list the owners of the 41-year-old home as Stanley A. Herman, 62, and Joan Herman, 63. Authorities are waiting to identify the victims until the state medical examiner's office in Baltimore has completed autopsies.

A Christmas wreath landed in the middle of the road. A concrete birdbath in the front yard was one of the few items left standing. Two cars parked in the drive were destroyed. The roadway was littered with debris.

"It blew us out of bed," said Chris Paladino, who lives two doors from the house that exploded. "I've never heard a bang that loud. It was just absolutely incredible. ... I think we're all still in a little shock."

Paladino, who works in communications for the national headquarters of the Red Cross in Washington, said he and another neighbor who rushed outside after the blast used fire extinguishers to keep the flames from spreading to a house next door.

Paladino said the explosion cracked his ceiling and shifted the position of load-bearing walls inside his house.

When firefighters arrived, they found a house that had been leveled to its foundation, with flames shooting 40 to 50 feet in the air, said Capt. Ty Stottlemyer of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Squad.

Officials declared 10 homes uninhabitable until they could be inspected by structural engineers.

The Red Cross was arranging accommodations for those who were displaced, Stottlemyer said.

A resident of one of the adjacent houses was treated for a minor laceration, but no other injuries were reported by residents of nearby houses, Stottlemyer said.

Last night, investigators sifted through the shattered chunks of brick around the foundation of the destroyed home, trying to find evidence of what might have caused the explosion.

To make certain they didn't overlook anything, investigators were looking into the possibility that a bomb might have gone off - but this does not appear to be likely, said Baliles.

Washington Gas utility workers were on the scene, as were Red Cross volunteers.

Firefighters boarded up the houses in the neighborhood that inspectors deemed unsafe.

Residents of the damaged homes were packing their bags and moving out last night. Most were planning to sleep at the homes of friends and family members, authorities said.

"People are carrying bags like they are moving out," Baliles said. "We'll let them back into their homes once we determine they are safe."

Gale E. Bennof said she felt the force of the explosion at her apartment on New Hampshire Avenue near Powder Mill Road, about a quarter-mile from the house.

She drove over to see the damage shortly after 1 p.m. and learned at the scene that two people had been killed. "It's terrible," she said.

Justin Lev-Tov, 33, an archaeologist who lives four blocks from the site, said the sound was similar to that of terrorist bombs he heard while studying in Jerusalem.

"I heard a huge boom, and literally felt a shock wave roll through the house, passing through under your feet," said Lev-Tov. "I've been a quarter-mile from bomb blasts in Jerusalem, and it certainly felt the same as a bomb - in terms of the vibrations, the glass shattering and the car alarms going off."

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