A major gas explosion ripped through multiple homes Monday morning in the Reisterstown Station neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore, killing one woman and seriously injuring at least seven other people.
The explosion, which occurred around 10 a.m. and could be heard for miles, crumbled three two-story rowhomes in the 4200 block of Labyrinth Road, just behind Reisterstown Road Plaza shopping center near the city-county line. The exact cause of the explosion is under investigation, fire officials said.
The blast pummeled multiple adjacent houses — in some cases blowing out windows, tearing doors from hinges and knocking people indoors off their feet. One city councilman reported seeing bricks lodged deep in the metal door of a car parked across the street.
Neighbors dashed to the scene to search for survivors buried in the rubble. More than 200 emergency responders quickly joined the search and pulled at least one man and woman from the debris following about two hours of effort. Officials did not provide ages of the people who were rescued, but witnesses said they heard children calling for help after the explosion.
Fire department officials referred to their efforts as a “rescue mission” as late as Monday evening.
“This is a horrendous situation,” Baltimore fire chief Niles Ford said.
Three men were treated at the University of Maryland Medical Center for injuries from the gas explosion. One was in critical condition, one was serious and one was in fair condition, spokeswoman Lisa Clough said.
Isaac Graham said Monday night that he is worried his nephew, Joseph, might be trapped beneath the rubble.
Graham said nobody in the family has heard from the 20-year-old since Sunday night. Joseph Graham was at a party with one of his best friends and decided to stay the night.
But the house he was staying in was one that exploded, Graham said, and Joseph’s phone is going straight to voicemail.
Graham said one of his nephew’s friends was transported to a hospital and was having difficulty with his memory.
The family has been out at the scene all day, trying to get answers but have yet to hear anything from officials, Graham said. While they wait, his uncle said the family is praying and trying to comfort one another.
Joseph Graham is a rising junior at Morgan State University and recently launched his own clothing line, his uncle said.
The roar of the explosion frightened neighbors, many of whom said they felt disturbed by their proximity to the fatal blast.
Moses Glover was inside his home in the same block of Labyrinth Road when he heard a boom and looked outside his window. Suddenly, a second blast sent the 77-year-old tumbling off his feet, he said.
“It knocked me across the bed,” Glover said. “I came downstairs and saw all of the fronts of the houses across the street, they were on the ground. I had a picture window downstairs. The glass is in the chair now.”
Moses struggled to steady his breathing and said he was “shook up” by the experience.
The explosion destroyed the home of Major Watkins Jr., 88, and Caroline Youngblood, 90. Watkins, a U.S. Army artillery veteran, said the blast “sounded like Korea.”
When Latanya Heath heard her bay window shatter, she initially thought a rock from a lawnmower had struck it.
“When I came outside, I saw the house on the ground,” Heath said. “It was chaos.”
Jordan Ciesielczyk-Gibson, 31, who lives about a mile from the explosion site, was in bed Monday morning when he was startled by the loud noise.
“I heard the boom, and I was like, ‘what was that?’ Then, the whole house shook,” said Ciesielczyk-Gibson, “It all happened so fast.”
Crews toiled in sweltering heat, and neighbors were left without air conditioning as power was shut off in the block. The high temperatures required officials to cycle through fire crews from the city and county to prevent them from getting heat exhaustion, said Chief Roman Clark, a Fire Department spokesman.
First responders continued working late into the afternoon and were “ready to be here throughout the night,” said department spokeswoman Blair Adams.
Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. received a call from the fire department around 9:54 a.m. asking crews to respond to the scene.
Crews worked to turn off gas lines, some of which were difficult to access because of debris from the explosion, company spokeswoman Linda Foy said around 3:30 p.m. The utility’s crews had “found no current readings of gas” when they canvassed the neighborhood. But BGE shut off gas and electric service to ensure the scene was safe at the Fire Department’s request, officials said in a statement.
“Once fire rescue is complete, we will begin the process of working with the Fire Department to investigate BGE equipment in the area,” the BGE statement said.
Later, in an email at 8:52 p.m., BGE announced that its crews had inspected the Labyrinth Road gas main and canvassed all surrounding buildings, and that no gas readings were found in any of the buildings and no leaks were found on the Labyrinth Road gas main or services.
Crews were continuing to inspect area gas mains and services.
The utility said its records indicate that the gas infrastructure was installed in the early 1960s, that no gas odors were reported before the explosion and that BGE did not receive any recent gas odor calls from the block of homes that were damaged. BGE’s most recent inspection of the gas mains and services in the area occurred in June and July of 2019 and did not identify any leaks, the news release said.
Some electric lines in the area were damaged and crews have repaired those lines to restore power to all nearby residents who lost power, BGE said.
Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young reported that several agencies had also deployed individuals door to door to check for any potential gas leaks and to make sure homes were stable.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan called the explosion “horrific” and said in a tweet that he was “closely monitoring” the situation.
“We have reached out to offer our full support to the ongoing response and recovery efforts, and are deeply grateful to the first responders on the scene,” Hogan said in the tweet.
The owners of the three homes that appeared to have been leveled by the explosion — 4230, 4232 and 4234 Labyrinth Road — are listed in state property records as Robin and Leroy Johnson. They declined to comment when reached by a reporter at their Baltimore County home.
While the exact cause of the blasts is not immediately clear, many Baltimore-area gas lines are in serious need of repair — a project that could take BGE at least two decades to complete, The Sun reported last year.
BGE, the nation’s oldest gas utility with origins dating to 1817, likely needs to replace thousands of miles of obsolete pipes.
Chris Burton, BGE’s vice president for gas distribution, testified before the Maryland Public Service Commission in mid-May, providing an update on the company’s aging infrastructure.
About one-third of its gas distribution mains, one-quarter of its gas services and half of its transmission mains are older than 50 years old, he said. Roughly 15% of its massive gas distribution system is made of “outmoded materials.”
Gas leaks are so frequent that nearly two dozen of them are discovered each day, on average, according to data BGE reports to federal authorities. The number of leaks increased by 75% from 2009 to 2016 — amid what officials called a “dramatic” increase in the failure of pipe joints dating from the 1950s and 1960s.
Property records suggest the two-story, 1,000-square-foot rowhomes in the neighborhood affected by Monday’s blast date to around 1960.
A natural gas explosion partially leveled a Columbia shopping center in August, just 30 minutes after Howard County emergency responders evacuated the building. The gas explosion, which officials at the time said originated with an 8- to 10-foot crack in the business center parking lot, caused extensive blast damage to the 22 businesses in the Lakeside Office building in the 8800 block of Stanford Boulevard.
On Aug. 10, 2016 — four years earlier to the day — an explosion at the Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring killed seven people and injured dozens more. In April 2019, the National Transportation Safety Board attributed the incident to failed gas equipment.
Nearly 680,000 Baltimore-area residents and businesses use natural gas to heat homes, buildings and water or to cook on stovetops.
The explosion prompted an outpouring of support from residents and businesses across the region.
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U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who represents the 7th District, thanked the neighbors who first rushed in to help, along with the first responders, city agencies, and the American Red Cross.
”I have spoken at length with Mayor Young and I am looking at ways to try and provide some level of federal assistance to the city in its efforts to restore a whole community that will be traumatized by this tragedy for a long time to come,” he said.
State Sen. Jill Carter thanked residents for reaching out to help the families impacted by the explosion. Clothing, food and other essentials were being dropped off at the Applebee’s in Reisterstown Plaza.
Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency said they were coordinating with state and local emergency management officials.
City Council President Brandon Scott urged people to rally around those who were extracted from the debris and are “fighting for their lives.”
“The entire city of Baltimore needs to send hopeful prayers to everyone impacted by this,” Scott said. “Nobody should have to experience this.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Jessica Anderson, Christine Condon, Scott Dance, Phillip Jackson, Thalia Juarez, Daniel Oyefusi and Talia Richman contributed to this article.