Woman killed as explosion, fire in Perryville level 3 buildings 24 reported hurt; 100 left homeless

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The name of a woman who died in Saturday's explosion and fire in Perryville was misspelled in Sunday's and Monday's editions of The Sun. Her name is Susan C. Monsson.

The Sun regrets the errors.

PERRYVILLE -- An explosion that may have been caused by a leaking propane tank in a restaurant rocked this quiet Susquehanna River town early yesterday, leveling three buildings and killing one woman.

Town officials said the explosion and fire at 8:55 a.m., which sent flames 40 feet in the air, did about $2 million worth of damage to the 300 block of Broad Street, the main thoroughfare of this Cecil County town of 2,500 people 38 miles northeast of Baltimore.

The blast sent insulation, timber and glass raining for blocks, blew petbirds out of their cages and shook houses 10 miles away.

It ignited a six-alarm fire that burned out of control for about an hour and sent smoke out for miles.

Calling it the worst local disaster in memory, officials said 24 people were injured and about 100 were left homeless.

Last night, rescuers with a specially trained dog searching the charred rubble found the body of Susan Monsoon, 43, inside the first-floor kitchen area of her demolished apartment.

The body, found at 9:10 p.m. next to a breakfast bar in the gutted apartment, was severely burned. An autopsy by the state medical examiner is planned today.

Two residents of the destroyed apartment building, William and Martha Cox, both 24, were admitted to Harford County Memorial Hospital suffering from smoke inhalation. Both were listed in satisfactory condition last night.

William Monsoon, the dead woman's husband, escaped from their apartment as the building crumbled above him "only by a miracle," said Deputy Chief Fire Marshall Bob Thomas.

"What it looked to us was like a 500-pound bomb had been dropped right in the center of the block," Chief Thomas said.

"The fact that everyone got out with exception of the one woman is extremely fortunate," he said. "We had all the elements for a much greater catastrophe."

More than 125 firefighters from Pennsylvania and Maryland fought the blaze.

About 10 of them, working in heavy yellow protective gear in yesterday's 92-degree heat, were treated at the scene and at local hospitals for heat exhaustion, smoke inhalation and other injuries. None was hurt seriously, Chief Thomas said.

The blast destroyed the A-1 Sub Shop at 365 Broad St., formerly a local breakfast spot, which had shut down recently. The sub shop is where officials suspect there may have been a propane leak.

Also leveled were the apartment building and a two-story structure that housed a pet salon, dry cleaner and two apartments.

At least 20 other buildings were damaged, among them a senior citizens' apartment house and a bank. The stone walls in a nearby 100-year-old church were cracked, and other buildings sustained smoke and water damage, cracked walls and broken windows. Some buildings were jarred from their foundations.

Firefighters said some of the injured were inside Perry Villa, a housing complex for the elderly, whose brick walls cracked and bowed under the pressure of the blast. Many of those hurt were thrown to the ground and cut when the explosion shattered windows and doors.

Regina Reynolds, who was sleeping in a first-floor apartment next door to the restaurant, said she was rocked awake by the blast and started screaming when she saw that the wall to her apartment was missing.

The 24-year-old Perryville woman said she took only a moment to slip on shorts and a shirt, then rushed barefoot out of the hole created by the blast.

"The whole building was caving in on us," she said. "We couldn't grab anything. . . . We lost everything."

State Tfc. Stanley Wilson of the Northeast Barracks, on routine patrol nearby, went to the site when he heard the blast. Later, he told of seeing a building crumble slowly next to the burning rubble of the restaurant and hearing people screaming that others were stuck inside.

"There was a small fire, but it was spreading really fast," he said. He ran to the back where he saw a terrified couple, the Coxes, on the second floor, unable to escape because the blast had blown away the stairway and porch.

The 29-year-old trooper said he clambered up the shaky porch roof, which had been thrown about four feet away from the building, and grabbed Mrs. Cox's feet from below to help lower her to the ground while the rafters of the building continued to fall.

"The thing that was bothering me the most was that the building was in the process of collapsing. You could hear it crumble," he said.

Asked if he was scared, Trooper Wilson said, "That's why I was doing it. I was really scared about the electric lines. They were everyplace."

Power to the town was shut off for more than an hour when firefighters began mopping up.

Trooper Wilson, who has been with the state police for four years, said the Coxes told him that they smelled leaking gas for a couple of days. Although Chief Thomas said the initial investigation pointed to a propane leak as the cause of the explosion, he said further investigation will be needed.

Late yesterday the town building inspector had begun condemning some buildings close to the explosion site because of buckled walls and damaged foundations, Chief Thomas said.

The Rev. Robert Kelly, pastor of the Perryville United Methodist Church, said that the city had condemned the Gothic-style gray stone church and its nearby educational building.

"The sanctuary is a mess; that's the only word for it," said Mr. Kelly as workmen boarded up the church.

"The light fixtures have fallen, and the windows have caved in. . . . We have smoke damage, water damage and damage from the explosion," he said.

He said the blast also destroyed irreplaceable stained-glass windows. "They don't even make glass like that anymore," he said.

Despite the devastation, Mr. Kelly said he was somewhat thankful.

"If it had to happen, today is as good a day as any," he said. "If it happened [today] during services, there'd be a lot more injuries and fatalities."

He said the theme of his service today , which will be held in a nearby church, won't be the accident, but a patriotic message.

As the heat of the day and the rescue effort progressed, townsfolk began to pitch in to help.

The local Boy Scout troop handed out free glasses of water and soda. Nurses from the veterans hospital joined the relief efforts, and emergency workers passed out bags of hamburgers.

Those left homeless by the blast were being housed and assisted last night by the Veterans Administration Hospital in Perry Point, the Red Cross and other social service agencies.

Because of the explosion, all the local firefighters missed yesterday afternoon's Independence Day parade in Havre de Grace, said Sarah Marley, a Perryville town commissioner.

The parade went on without Perryville's town float because heavy equipment couldn't be spared to tow it across the bridge, she said.

Jim Penhollow, a Cecil County employee who has been a volunteer firefighter for more than 40 years, said yesterday's destruction was the worst he's seen.

Ironically, he said, the worst fire before this one was 20 years ago: It burned down an apartment building that stood on the site of Perry Villa.

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