20 years later, Perryville explosion remembered

One killed, scores injured and displaced when downtown block burned

  • Firemen sift through the rubble left after an explosion and fire leveled several buildings in Perryville on the morning of July 6, 1991.
Firemen sift through the rubble left after an explosion and… (Aegis/Record file photo,…)
July 07, 2011|By The Record Staff

The morning of July 6, 1991, started like any other summer Saturday in Perryville.

Within hours, however, the downtown of the small waterfront community would resemble a scene which many would later describe as right out of the burning oil fields and the rubble of Kuwait, where the Gulf War, aka Desert Storm, had been waged just a few months earlier.

Shortly after 9 a.m., an explosion and resulting fire leveled three Perryville buildings and damaged 20 others along one side of the 300 block of Broad Street near town hall and the train station.

The holocaust killed a resident of one of the buildings, injured 34 others and displaced about 100 people. Damage was estimated as high as $15 million.

Every fire company from Cecil and Harford counties, as well as companies from as far away as Lancaster and Chester counties in Pennsylvania, were dispatched to the scene, along with local and state police from throughout the region.

Wednesday marked the 20th anniversary of the explosion.

"My God, that was 20 years ago?" replied Bob Thomas when informed of the anniversary. Thomas, a Joppa resident, was a deputy state fire marshal who investigated the cause of the explosion, which was eventually blamed on a leaking propane tank for a vacant sub shop storefront that had gone out of business just a week earlier.

Thomas said he was working at headquarters in Baltimore when the explosion occurred and quickly made his way to Perryville, where he would work for hours over the next two days trying to determine what had happened.

"I think it was a second floor of a wood frame dwelling," he recalled. "A [state] trooper made a rescue…there was a photograph of him taking somebody off a roof."

Thomas investigated fires, explosions and other manmade disasters for 31 years before retiring in 2006. He is now the chief spokesperson for Harford County government. He said he remembers most of the disasters he worked.

"You don't forget," he said.

The trooper Thomas referred to was TFC Stanley C. Wilson III. Assigned to the North East Barrack, Wilson was one of two resident troopers stationed in Perryville to provide the town's law enforcement in those days.

Wilson, then 29 and a graduate of Harford Christian School, was on patrol out on Route 40 and had just stopped at a service station when he heard the explosion and would later say it struck him immediately that it sounded too close to be testing from Aberdeen Proving Ground. He also recalled debris falling from the sky as he drove along Aiken Avenue in the direction of the blast.

An account written by then-Record editor Jim Kennedy reported that Wilson arrived at the scene of the explosion, grabbed a fire extinguisher from his cruiser and headed for the flaming three-story apartment house between the Broad Street Café and Perryville Methodist Church. He quickly realized the building was in danger of collapse and went around to the back, where he saw a husband and wife trapped on the third floor.

Aided by a ladder supplied by the pastor of the Methodist church, Rev. Robert Kelly, Wilson climbed on to the back porch and rescued the couple. Not long afterward, the building collapsed and was engulfed in flames.

One resident of the building did not make it out alive. Susan Monsson, a 43-year-old mother of two and grandmother of four, was trapped inside by falling debris on the first floor and burned to death. Search dogs recovered her body about 12 hours later.

All of the newspaper people from Harford County who covered the disaster knew Mrs. Monsson well. The Havre de Grace native had been a classified ad clerk for both The Record and The Aegis. She was well-liked by her coworkers.

"Every Fourth of July I think about it," Karen Bowers, who worked with Mrs. Monsson and is the current classified manager for the two newspapers, said. "It changed Fourth of July for me forever."

For his heroic efforts, Wilson was personally honored by then Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who presented the trooper with a governor's citation after touring the blast scene the following Monday.

"Everyone who was there was a hero," Wilson told the governor.

Many of the estimated 300 firefighters, rescue workers and auxiliary organizations who responded to the explosion and fire remembered it well in interviews published earlier this week in the Cecil Whig. Because of the intense heat of the fire combined with the normally high July air temperature, they had to work in shifts, with plenty of water and food supplied by the auxiliaries.

It would take months to clean up the blast scene and several buildings that survived were condemned. Only parts of the block were eventually rebuilt.

To those who were there that day, the memory of what it looked like on the morning of July 6, 1991, will never be erased.

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