PERRYVILLE -- Scattered in the 10-foot mound of rubble on Broad Street, a narrow strip in this small Cecil County town, lay a multitude of items charred by the raging fire after a propane gas explosion Saturday morning.
They included a scorched air conditioner, a woman's sweater, a collection of Harlequin Romance novels, a sofa and any number of other possessions and household items -- only a few days ago things that provided the comforts of everyday living for the 100 people left homeless by the blaze but now only burned and ruined debris.
On the curb, Shirley Reynolds, 44, who lost her home in the explosion, pointed out a large television console and a cradle that was a part of her doll collection.
Then, she took notice of two wooden boards, perhaps the remnants of a closet but now twisted into a bold cross at the top of the burned pile.
"It's a sign from God," said Reynolds, an employee of a destroyed pet grooming business, who barely escaped from a collapsing apartment over the shop.
"I think God's letting us know that he was with us and protected us so we could get out," she said.
She stopped talking and ran through the crowd to reach Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who arrived here yesterday afternoon with other state and local officials to view the destruction. She also pointed out the cross to him.
The governor's visit came just three days after the explosion at a closed sandwich shop that leveled the shop, a cleaning store, a pet grooming establishment and an apartment building, and shook other houses and business establishments along Broad Street and nearby. One woman was killed.
A bank, the Perry Villa retirement home and the 100-year-old Perryville Methodist Church also were damaged and have been condemned by building inspectors. The church, a community landmark, and perhaps the other two buildings may have to be razed and rebuilt, officials said.
The total damage estimate has risen to $10 million to $15 million, according to the state fire marshal's office. The original damage estimate Saturday had been $2 million.
Bob Thomas, deputy chief state fire marshal, said the damage represented the highest single fire loss this year.
Scores of Perryville residents followed Schaefer on his tour of the ruins. It was the first time many of them had viewed the aftermath of the explosion.
The governor said he was shocked by the disaster, but impressed by the support from the community.
"The thing that impressed me the most was people caring about people," Schaefer said. "You don't know when a tragedy like this will happen to your community."
The state government will continue to provide personnel and monetary assistance to Perryville until the town has overcome the disaster, the governor said.
"Whatever the town council wants us to do we'll be there," Schaefer said.
He said the state will work to seek help from the federal government, but he could not promise success.
State Trooper Stanley Wilson, the first law official on the scene Saturday, was presented with a governor's citation for saving two residents from a collapsing building.
Before, during and after the governor's visit, residents lined Broad Street, many still in awe of the damage caused by the blast.
One resident said she feared the incident will hurt the economy of Perryville by forcing some scared people to move from the area.
"We're not a very wealthy community as it is," said Dina Frederick, 22, of Aiken Avenue. "And this doesn't help any. We're going to lose a lot of people from the area."
Frederick said Broad Street did not have many businesses, but the few destroyed in the explosion attracted many patrons.
For example, she said, now that the A-1 Sub Shop is gone, residents will have to travel a mile farther to another sub shop that has higher prices.
She also said church services at the damaged Methodist Church had enlivened the quiet community on Sundays.
"There's going to be nothing left in Perryville now," Frederick said.
Ann Perry, 39, who lives directly across from the site of the explosion, said the blast woke her. As she opened her eyes, she said, debris and shattered glass were flying at her home.
Perry said the blast knocked pictures from her wall, blew off her steel front door and destroyed just about everything in her home. She is living with a neighbor after officials condemned the house, which they said was knocked from its foundation.
Perry said building contractors told her that her $78,000 home, now boarded up with access around it restricted, would cost more than its value to repair. She and her husband may be able to move back into their home in four to six months, she said.
"I'm just thankful me and my husband got out alive," said Perry, breaking into tears. "The house can be replaced."
Other residents attributed divine intervention to the low number of fatalities resulting from the incident.
"You can't tell me there ain't no God," said Linda Kane, 49, who barely escaped the burning building with Reynolds.
Kane owned the pet grooming shop that was destroyed. She and Shirley Reynolds, an employee, lived in apartments above the store. They both sustained a few minor cuts and bruises.
"We're going to have to rebuild our lives and our business," Kane said.
Brenda Miller, 36, said she is sorry she cannot do more for her neighbors.
"I feel helpless," said Miller, who lives on Susquehanna Avenue, adjacent to Broad Street. "You can't do anything. You can try to make them feel better, but you can't replace what they've lost."
Gene Ashford, 43, said he and his wife have visited the site twice a day since the disaster.
"It's a big shock when an explosion takes a whole block out," said Ashford, who lives on Aiken Avenue, about five blocks away. "It makes people stop and think."
He said the blast was simply an untimely disaster and no one should be blamed. The apartment residents who said they had smelled gas days before the explosion probably did not realize ++ the gravity of the situation, Ashford said.
Schaefer also warned that anyone who smells gas should call 911 so similar incidents will not be repeated.
The Ashfords said the ruins reminded them of a fire that occurred about 20 years ago and destroyed a department store at the same site where the condemned Perry Villa retirement home is today.
Meanwhile, state fire marshals pondered three propane-related cases occurring Saturday and Sunday.
"It's unusual and very disturbing to us that we've had three incidents in 48 hours," Thomas said.
On Saturday afternoon, a 2,000-gallon tank leaked propane gas at the Kaiser Refractories Co., a fire brick manufacturer in Allegany County. Thirty nearby residents were evacuated for 4 1/2 hours, but there were no fires or injuries, Thomas said.
A propane gas explosion Sunday afternoon killed an elderly woman in her Pasadena home and left her husband injured.
Thomas said that in 1989, there were 147 incidents in Maryland involving propane gas that resulted in the injuries of four firefighters and 10 civilians and $1 million in property damage. Last year, 96 similar incidents injured two firefighters and seven civilians and caused $600,000 in property damage, Thomas said.
The Cecil County Chapter of the Red Cross, the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, local fast-food outlets and the state departments of aging, social services and human resources continued to provide food, shelter, storage space, medicine and counseling to victims yesterday at the Perryville Town Hall.
"At this point, the reality is starting to set in for a lot of people -- what happened and how lucky they are," said Patrick Smythe, disaster chairman of the county Red Cross.
Smythe said the Red Cross has contributed about $8,000 in disaster assistance, and he expects that his agency will contribute as much as $15,000.
Donations to help residents displaced by the explosion can be sent to: The Red Cross, 104 Court House Plaza, Elkton 21921. Checks should be made out to the "Disaster Fund."