7 hurt in Essex duplex blast

Two firefighters trapped for hour before rescue

Escape `was a miracle'

Residents of home had reported gas leak

November 03, 2003|By Andrew A. Green and Childs Walker | Andrew A. Green and Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Two firefighters and an Essex resident were trapped and four others also injured when a duplex exploded after an apparent gas leak last night.

The explosion rocked the 500 block of Chalcot Square and neighboring streets in Stemmers Run about 5:30 p.m. One of the owners of the duplex, Cecil W. Himes, was reported in stable but critical condition last night at the Baltimore Regional Burn Center at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

The two firefighters were trapped in the basement of the house for about an hour. They were taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center but did not appear to be seriously injured, fire officials said.

"It wasn't luck. It was a miracle," Baltimore County Fire Chief John Hohman said of the firefighters' survival.

A teen-age neighbor was also among the injured. Witnesses said the girl was backing up her family's minivan in front of the house when the explosion knocked out her side windows, cutting her with glass. She was taken to Franklin Square Hospital Center.

Firefighters received a call from the Himes home reporting an odor of gas about 5:15 p.m. and sent two trucks to the scene. According to witnesses and fire officials, two firefighters entered the house with Himes. Minutes later, the neighborhood was rocked with an explosion. Witnesses said it looked like the house rose off its foundation, exploded outward and fell to the ground.

Himes was trapped on the first floor, but the two firefighters fell through it into the basement, landing in a pocket inside the structure -- what fire officials called a "void space," said department spokesman Michael Robinson.

After the "mayday" call from the firefighters on the scene, the department sent its collapse rescue and advanced tactical rescue teams. The rescue teams were able to remove Himes from the building first, but had to move 8 to 10 feet of debris to get to the trapped firefighters.

Robinson said the two firefighters were conscious the whole time and were able to communicate with the rescue teams by radio and later by voice.

"I have no idea how they stayed alive," Hohman said. "It was frightening for an hour, I can tell you that."

Others in the area sustained minor injuries in the explosion. Two other firefighters were headed into the house at the time and were hit by debris in the blast. They were taken to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center for examination. A police officer who was on the scene also sustained minor injuries, said police spokesman Shawn Vinson.

Workers from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. were unable to get inside the house last night, but cut off its gas flow from outside after the explosion, said spokesman Robert L. Gould.

"As best we can tell on the outside, there were no leaks, no reported leaks that we're aware of, and we've had no crews working in the area," he said, adding that BGE would assist in the Fire Department's investigation of the blast today.

Cecil Himes' wife, Donna, and their two sons were standing outside when the blast leveled their home, neighbors said.

Neighbor Scott Kraft said the family sat in his living room after the explosion, and he said Donna Himes was "crying and shaking like a leaf." He said the couple's two boys were sitting on his couch, staring straight ahead.

He said Donna Himes told him she had smelled gas at the back door when she and her sons returned from a family outing. She and the boys then stood away from the house as firefighters went in to investigate, Kraft said. Another neighbor, Candice Martin, said Donna Himes warned the family who lived in the other half of the duplex of the suspected gas leak, and they left before the explosion.

Kraft said he and his son were standing outside when the house, located across the street, exploded.

"It looked like a scene in the movies," he said. "Everything come flying out and then everything collapsed. My son ran behind the porch, and I ducked and turned around."

Neighbors said the blast blew windows out of cars, filled the street with debris and shook houses more than a block away.

Chalcot neighbor Jean Webb said she was looking directly at the house when it exploded.

"It made a tremendous boom, and then everything just flew," she said.

Webb compared the damage to devastation she saw in London after German bombs hit during World War II. "It looks like it was hit by a bomb," she said. "It's just a pile of rubble."

Webb said the impact shattered the bottom of her glass storm door and blasted a hole in her canvas awning.

"It was rather a harrowing experience," she said.

Other neighbors were also shocked.

"My lands, I couldn't imagine what it was, and when I went outside all I could see was smoke where those two houses were," said Ruth Bortle, who lives across Chalcot from the duplex.

Neighbors said they did not see flames or charred debris, though some said they saw smoldering rubble after the explosion.

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