School evacuated after explosion

Gasoline vapors might have caused blast in sewer near St. Clement in Rosedale

October 20, 2006|By Nick Shields | Nick Shields,SUN REPORTER

The kids at St. Clement School in Rosedale were outside playing early yesterday afternoon when a loud boom shook the ground.

With recess just about over, Principal Angie Rebbert led the children back into the school, but when they encountered a strong odor, Rebbert called 911, set off the fire alarm and evacuated the building.

The blast came from under the ground near the school, and it was strong enough to send a nearby manhole cover flying. While more than 300 youngsters were led a safe distance away, investigators tried to figure out what had caused the explosion in the volatile air of the sewer system.

Late in the day, a small amount of gasoline found in the sewer seemed to be the best clue they had found.

"The feeling is that the vapors from the gasoline built up in that sewer area," said Robert Ballinger, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Sections of Old Philadelphia Road and Chesaco Avenue were closed for about three hours yesterday afternoon. No injuries were reported.

Rebbert described the explosion as "too loud to be a gunshot." A pupil at the school said the noise was enough to startle birds in nearby trees.

"I could feel the earth shaking," said 11-year-old Kayla Pelletier, a sixth-grader She said she and other pupils began to cry.

Dolores Ludwig, 79, who lives nearby on Old Philadelphia Road, sais she was in her bedroom putting away her laundry when the explosion rattled her home.

"I thought a car had come through the house," she said.

Ludwig said she walked to the front of her home expecting the worst and saw that a manhole cover was missing in her front lawn and that white smoke was spewing out.

She said firefighters placed a ventilation fan in the basement of her home because vapors had entered her home.

Louis Thuerrauch, owner of Little Lou's Seafood and Sub, about a block from the school, said he was serving customers when he heard the noise. He said customers were startled. When business quieted down, he looked out and saw several firetrucks and police cruisers near the school.

A funeral home in the area canceled a viewing scheduled for yesterday afternoon, a county fire official said.

About 350 pupils and others from St. Clement, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade Roman Catholic school on Chesaco Avenue, were taken to the Rosedale Volunteer Fire Company and a nearby lot.

In the hours after the incident, parents and grandparents drove to the area to pick up pupils.

Authorities ruled out natural gas lines as the cause of the explosion.

Investigators from the county Fire Department were looking into the possibility that someone might have dumped a chemical into the sewer system, said Michael Robinson, a division chief and spokesman for the department.

Ballinger, the Department of the Environment spokesman, said a "small quantity" of gasoline found in the sewer might have caused the explosion.

Authorities flushed the sewer area to dilute any gasoline, he said.

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