Residents of the Clary's Forest community stood outside the wreckage Thursday morning in Columbia, gazing at the shattered remains of an explosion the night before that left six townhouses uninhabitable and an estimated $2 million in damage, according to Howard County fire officials.
As gutters and windowpanes thrown from the blast occasionally fell from the trees, shards of glass that once covered the entire cul-de-sac were sparse, but pieces the size of dollar bills still hid in neighbors' lawns, crunching under the boots of firefighters. Rescue workers retrieved burnt scraps and belongings from some of the homes as cleanup crews cleared debris blocking one driveway, making room for a green Jeep Grand Cherokee that survived the blast, albeit with cracked windows and melted headlights and taillights.
Howard County firefighters spent more than three hours Wednesday night extinguishing the blaze, which started at sundown with an explosion that some likened to a bomb blast and others thought was an earthquake.
Prior to the explosion, a resident next door called BGE to report the smell of gas. A technician arrived shortly after and detected low levels of gas, proceeding to the adjacent townhouse. The technician also noticed a damaged gas assembly and a high level of gas in the garage.
Fire officials said the explosion triggered a three-alarm fire that spread to neighboring homes in the 12000 block of Sleepy Horse Lane. Two people were injured, including a Baltimore Gas and Electric employee.
Several observers said it was a miracle no one was more seriously injured.
"If those people would have been in the house [that exploded], there's is no way they would have survived the explosion, there's absolutely no way," said neighbor Paul Treffinger, whose house was not damaged. "It's scary, because it could happen to any of us."
"I'm sure we're all going to come together and know our neighbors a lot more now," said another neighbor, Laura Grebe.
At sundown Wednesday, 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."
Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services spokeswoman Maria Hogg said Thursday the site would be fenced off "so we don't have further injuries."
The American Red Cross of the Greater Chesapeake was assisting three residents of the block, who were renting rooms in one of the townhouses deemed uninhabitable. A spokeswoman said the organization, which responds to disasters in the region, was sheltering the residents.
Lew Kaiser, who witnessed Wednesday night's explosion, returned to collect some items from his car on Thursday.
"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."
One house was destroyed, leaving a gap between trees, and only the shells of the two houses on either side remained, their interiors burned out.
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Six units — the house that exploded, two townhouses to the left, and three to the right — were deemed uninhabitable by inspectors, according to Hogg.
Other homes in the neighborhood are safe for residents, Hogg said.
Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. spokesman Aaron Koos said the company was "supporting the Howard County fire department in their investigation." BGE has 58,651 customers in Howard County.
He urged residents who smell natural gas to call the utility 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 and then call us from a safe location. Any electronic device, like a cellphone, can be an ignition source," Koos said.
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Kevin Rector, Lisa Philip, Jen Rynda and Colin Campbell contributed to this article.
This story has been updated.