Columbia house explodes, causing three-alarm fire

Two injured after explosion results in Columbia house fire.

Six townhouses are considered uninhabitable after a townhouse in Columbia exploded amid a suspected gas leak Wednesday. 

Gas and electric for the block is shut off after the explosion triggered a three-alarm fire that spread to neighboring homes in the 12000 block of Sleepy Horse Lane and injured two people, fire officials said.

Lew Kaiser, who witnessed Wednesday night's explosion, returned Thursday morning to collect some items from his car. 

"It was horrifying because it was a huge explosion, so it rocked the entire neighborhood," he said. "There were doors [across the street] that opened. It was something that was almost not describable because I've never been in a situation like that."

Those injured were a resident and a Baltimore Gas & Electric worker who had been called to fix the leak in the Clary's Chase neighborhood, Howard County Fire Chief John Butler said.

The home that exploded was unoccupied at the time, he said. A neighborhood resident suffered respiratory injuries and was transported to the hospital.

The BGE worker's injuries were unknown, but he was taken to the Johns Hopkins Bayview burn center, fire officials said.

On Thursday, BGE spokesman Aaron Koos said the worker had been released from the hospital. 

Butler said late Wednesday that all residents were accounted for and rescuers are no longer searching.

A BGE truck was on site, and a spokesperson for the American Red Cross of the Greater Chesapeake Region said the organization is providing shelter for three residents displaced by the explosion and fire.

Kaiser said the owner of the house was assisted by the Red Cross and a local chaplain, and is now staying with family. 

A fencing company is slated to confine the area from the community to keep neighbors and visitors safe.

Other homes in the neighborhood are safe for residents, according to county fire and rescue spokeswoman Maria Hogg. But five neighboring units to the home that exploded sustained significant damage. Three of them had fire damage.

Two townhomes to the left, and three to the right of the townhome that exploded were deemed uninhabitable, Hogg said Thursday morning as crews continued to investigate.

Koos, of BGE, said the company was "supporting the Howard County fire department in their investigation of the cause" of the fire. BGE has 58,651 customers in Howard County. 

He urged residents who smell natural gas to call the utility company right away. 

"Customers should get to a safe place before calling us. If they’re in an area with gas odor, they should leave the area first and then call us from a safe location. Any electronic device, like a cell phone, can be an ignition source," he said.

Those on the scene Wednesday night likened the explosion that caused the fire to a bomb going off. 

At sundown, Ira Gershman was preparing to break fast with family at his cousin's residence in Clary's Chase for Yom Kippur when a relative smelled gas. The family called a BGE employee, who came to investigate the leak, which appeared to be coming from the house next door.

“After two minutes, he said to us, ‘Get everybody out of that house,’” said Gershman. He said the house next door exploded about two minutes after that.

“I've never seen anything like it,” he said. “It was like a bomb.”

The explosion shattered windows, firewalls and drywalls, and sent the BGE employee flying. Gershman said he was just feet away from where debris was flying.

Kaiser, a relative of Gershman's, was also at the scene. He said there were several smaller explosions after the first one. 

"The fire erupted and then it began to spread," he said. 

One street over, Catherine Beebe heard a loud pop and then saw a column of smoke streaming up into the sky.

“I thought it was my building that exploded,” Beebe said.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman said he arrived to find a “pretty dramatic” scene but was glad to see how well it had been handled by emergency responders.

“I’m very thankful that we have such well-trained firefighters and police,” he said. “I just want to tell anyone in Howard County that we are lucky to have them here.

“It's one of the most traumatic things I've ever seen in my life. I've lived my whole life here in Howard County. You're very fortunate that nobody was home in the house that the leak was there,” Kittleman said.

At least one house was completely destroyed, leaving a gap between trees, and only the shell of several other houses remained, their interiors burnt out. Glass and other debris cluttered the pavement, crunching under the boots of firefighters.

Raji Shankar, 38, said the rear of her home faces the rear of the home that caught fire. She was home with her two children. She said she thought the explosion was an earthquake until she looked out her rear window.

“I saw the decks collapsing and the fire, and we ran out of the house,” she said.

“The flames shot into the sky” and the fire “felt like it was coming to our house too.”

Latha Sethu, 53, said she was a couple of doors down and had guests over at the time. She also thought it was an earthquake at first. “Then my friend shouted, ‘It’s fire, come out! Come out!’” she said.

Several residents said they didn’t know when they would be able to return to their homes.

According to the county fire department, those who called 911 reported hearing an explosion. One townhouse was engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived, the department said.

About 100 fire, emergency and BGE personnel responded to the scene. By the time first responders arrived at the scene, many residents had already evacuated.

“The magnitude of the explosion helped the community get out,” Butler said. “It was pretty audible.”

By late Wednesday, fire officials said the blaze was under control, and they were assessing the structural integrity of homes around the explosion.

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