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Nearly 50 years ago, another deadly rowhouse explosion brought tragedy to Baltimore

An explosion in January 1971 leveled rowhouses on Roberts Place in Baltimore and killed four people.
An explosion in January 1971 leveled rowhouses on Roberts Place in Baltimore and killed four people. (CHILDRESS/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

A young Highlandtown girl who visited her corner confectionery store in East Baltimore nearly 50 years ago might be living today if she had stayed to talk a few minutes longer to its owner.

She, and three other family members, perished in a gas explosion in the winter of 1971 that leveled rowhouses on Roberts Place, a small street near Pulaski Highway and the Hebrew Friendship Cemetery.

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Like so many of Baltimore’s tragic explosions — including the one in the Reisterstown Station neighborhood that killed two people Monday — there was no warning.

“I thought it was a plane that broke through the sound barrier,” said a neighbor, James Ricketts, of the blast that destroyed two homes on Roberts Place that January evening. Killed in the blast, according to stories in The Sun, were Mr. and Mrs. James George (the original article did not include the wife’s first name) and other family members, 7-year-old Annette Barber and her brother, Thomas.

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Annette, a girl who liked to make multiple trips a day to Sally’s Confectionery, often stopped and chatted with its owner, Melvin Skalinski.

“If I would have talked to that kid for two more minutes, she would have been in here with me,” Skalinski told a reporter after the explosion, which was attributed a gas leak. “She was a beautiful kid.”

After the explosion, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. officials said that a new gas line would be installed.

“That new line will make me feel better, but I haven’t been able to sleep well or sit still,” said a neighbor, Barbara Sewell, at the time. “If you never lived through this, it’s hard to know what fear is.”

A few years earlier, in 1966, a gas explosion tore apart several row houses on Roberton Avenue in Northeast Baltimore near Parkside Drive. No one was killed but three families were displaced. Then-Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin, vacationing in Ocean City, authorized the use of city crews to help clean up the debris and offered lodging at motels or the YMCA.

Perhaps Baltimore’s most spectacular, and deadliest explosion, was not related to gas. It happened off Fort Carroll, at the mouth of the Baltimore harbor, on March 7, 1913, when dynamite was being loaded aboard a steamer, the Alum Chine, headed for the Panama Canal.

“The Alum Chine was itself rent into a thousand pieces by her death-dealing cargo. The ship leaped into the air. Then there came a crash and a flare, fragments of iron, steel, woodwork and cases that had contained the explosive were hurled hundreds of feet into the air and the ship — or what was left of her — sank beneath the waters,” said a Sun story about the blast.

“Many of the men who were on the Alum Chine and on the barge from which the vessel was being loaded were caught face to face with the selection of instant death through the flames or explosion or a fight for life in the swirling waters,” the newspaper reported.

Some 33 people were killed in the blast.

The concussion was enormous and could be felt as far away as Philadelphia. It also sent a cloud of dust over downtown Baltimore that poured into open office windows, including that of then Mayor James Preston.

News reports said the Quarantine Hospital at Wagner’s Point felt the blast’s fury.

“Every window in the building was shattered, and doors were ripped from their hinges,” The Sun reported. “Patients were showered with debris and glass.

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“Those who witnessed the scene described the explosion simply as a roar and a flash — a roar, they say, such as has never been heard before and a flash that mounted seemingly hundreds of feet in the sky. The fragments of steel and iron fell like meteors into the harbor, bringing death and injury and terror to all who were within range,” The Sun said.

The Alum Chine disaster receded into local memory. But in the 1980s, as workers built the Interstate 95 tunnel under the harbor near Fort McHenry, they discovered unexplained pieces of debris. They wondered if these pieces of twisted metal were remnants of the Alum Chine.

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