Investigators seek gas leak source in blast

Owner of Essex duplex still in critical condition at Bayview burn center

BGE says main line was OK

4 firefighters, officer, 2 neighbors who were hurt released from hospitals

November 04, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt, Sara Neufeld and David Anderson | Laura Barnhardt, Sara Neufeld and David Anderson,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County investigators sifted through the rubble of an Essex duplex yesterday trying to pinpoint the source of the natural gas leak that caused the house to explode Sunday evening, trapping two firefighters and the homeowner inside as the foundation crumbled.

In all, four firefighters, homeowner Cecil W. Himes, a police officer, and two neighbors were injured in the 5:30 p.m. blast that rocked neighboring streets in the Stemmers Run neighborhood and shattered car windows, authorities said.

Himes remained in critical condition yesterday at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center's burn unit. All of the others were released from local hospitals, authorities said.

An initial investigation by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. found that the main line in the neighborhood and the gas lines connecting the duplex to the main line were not at fault, said fire Battalion Chief Mike Robinson.

County investigators - including police officers and firefighters - were trying to determine whether there was a problem with the gas lines inside the duplex or inside a gas-fueled appliance.

They were also trying to determine what ignited the gas.

Donna Himes, 37, had been visiting a relative with her two sons Sunday afternoon while her husband stayed home and watched a football game in the basement, his brother and sister-in-law said yesterday.

As she walked toward the house, she smelled gas, warned her next-door neighbors and asked them to call 911 while she tried to open the inside and outside basement doors, both of which were locked, according to police reports.

Himes' sons stayed outside, and their next-door neighbors escaped safely, fire officials said.

Himes told police that the knobs on her stove were in the off position when she checked them. She had just opened the first-floor windows when firefighters arrived, according to police reports.

It was unclear yesterday whether Cecil Himes, 38, was in the basement or had made it to the first floor when the duplex exploded, Robinson said.

Fire Lt. Dave Angelo and fire specialist Jay Ringold entered the home and fell through to the basement when the house exploded.

They were trapped there for about an hour.

The department's collapse rescue and advanced tactical 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.

Investigators will be looking at whether the explosion was ignited intentionally or accidentally, though there was no evidence either way yesterday, said Officer Shawn Vinson, a police spokesman.

Surrounded by relatives and friends outside the rubble that was her house, a tearful Donna Himes declined to comment yesterday.

District Court records show that she had received a restraining order against her husband in March seeking protection from domestic violence, but that she requested that the order be rescinded in June.

In August, Cecil Himes was ordered to undergo counseling, according to court documents.

Allen Himes acknowledged yesterday that court records show his brother, Cecil, had threatened suicide, and that troubles in his relationship with his wife were "public record."

But, he said, those things are "irrelevant" to the explosion, which he said was not a suicide attempt.

BGE crews were double-checking their lines through pressure tests yesterday, said Robert L. Gould, a spokesman for BGE's parent company, Constellation Energy Group.

He and Robinson said there does not appear to be a connection between Sunday's explosion and another house explosion in the neighborhood in September of last year also caused by leaking gas.

"It appears to be a coincidence at this time," Robinson said.

Gould said BGE received a report of a gas odor on the street in 2000 and another in 1999.

He said there were no construction projects reported in the area that would have affected the lines.

Explosions like the one Sunday are rare, said Daphne Magnuson, a spokeswoman for the American Gas Association, who added that about 60 percent of accidents along the nation's 1.4 million miles of natural gas pipeline are caused by excavation work.

The force of the explosion in Essex sent firefighter Sam Valencia, who had been standing near the front door of the duplex, flying across the lawn.

"You're in the house, and the next thing you know you're on the front lawn in a pile of rubble," he said yesterday.

"So many things were going through my head, worrying if the guys I work with were alive. ... I said, `I'm not leaving until we get them out of there.'"

Yesterday, with only minor burns on his ears and legs, Valencia was back at the scene of the blast, along with firefighter Bryan Rayner, who was around the corner at the time of the explosion.

"It just happened so fast," Valencia said.

Firefighter Louis Schaller was blown off the front porch and police Officer Bryan Jeunette, 26, was injured by flying debris as the duplex fell in what seemed like seconds.

Two neighbors, Nichol Robicheaux, 24, and Jennifer Hurtt, 16, were cut by flying glass when the windows of their minivans exploded from the force of the blast, according to police reports.

"It was crazy," said Hurtt, a Kenwood High junior. "Everything got lifted into the air. I was in shock; I got out of the van and ran down the road screaming."

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