'Everything was destroyed but the bed' $10 million estimate put on blast damage


PERRYVILLE -- State fire officials said yesterday that Saturday's devastating explosion here caused at least $10 million in damages and left 80 to 100 people homeless, including nearly two dozen residents of a retirement home.

Officials said they won't know for sure just how many people lost their homes until engineers inspect nearby residential buildings and decidewhether any are habitable.

"We have buildings all the way down the block that are going to be condemned," said State Fire Marshal Rocco Gabriele as he surveyed the wreckage yesterday. "It's the most devastating I've seen."

The blast and fire Saturday morning in this Cecil County town 38 miles northeast of Baltimore killed one woman and sent more than 20 people to the hospital for treatment of minor injuries.

Officials theorize that gas from a propane tank behind a Broad Street sandwich shop somehow leaked and caused the explosion, but the precisemalfunction may never be known because of the near-total ruin of nearby buildings. Originally, firefighters estimated $2 million in damages.

The explosion at 8:55 a.m. Saturday sent 40-foot flames into the air and rocked nearby buildings from their foundations. A team of three investigators was sifting through the wreckage piece by piece yesterday to find answers in a process that will take at least until midweek.

The sandwich shop and two apartment buildings were leveled )) by the blast, and officials yesterday posted "condemnation" signs on two more -- a nursing home and the historic Perryville United Methodist Church. Across the street from the former sandwich shop, the windows of a dozen more homes were outfitted with wood. Down the block, an eight-unit apartment building that had separated from its foundation was labeled uninhabitable.

Nearby residents smelled gas Friday night, but no one reported it to Cecil County fire or gas company officials, investigators said yesterday.

"Had a call been made to report the odor of gas, it is very likely that it would have been investigated immediately and this whole incident could have been avoided," said state Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Bob Thomas.

Overnight, social workers and Red Cross officials oversaw the evacuation of at least a dozen elderly people from the Perry Villa retirement home, most of whom were picked up by family members living in the region.

City officials moved two others to a hotel, while some residents were away for the weekend when the explosion occurred. County officials are working on permanent placements, officials said.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer was expected to visit the area today.

"I can't say enough for the county and the state," said Perryville Mayor Oakley Sumpter, who has directed emergency operations nearly round the clock since hearing the explosion while working in his office in Town Hall.

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