A natural gas explosion ripped apart a vacant Westminster house yesterday afternoon, severely damaging dozens of neighboring homes and spreading debris more than a mile away.
No one was injured, officials said.
Nearly 100 families were evacuated after the 1:18 p.m. blast, and at least 50 homes were damaged -- 20 of them seriously enough to be declared uninhabitable by county housing inspectors.
Residents were not allowed to return to their homes last night.
The Autumn Ridge neighborhood was strewn with garage doors, shattered windows, ripped insulation and aluminum siding, while all that was left of the house at 90 Sunshine Way was a smoldering pile of wood, brick and aluminum. The house had been for sale for at least a month.
Its owners -- who had many antiques in the home -- had recently moved to Arkansas. They were returning to Westminster last night, their real estate agent said.
David White, a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. senior pressure control technician, was inspecting a gas main about 50 feet from the house when the blast occurred. He and other technicians were sent to the area after a contractor reported hitting a gas pipe.
"I felt the wind hit my back before I heard the explosion; then bricks, glass and a window frame hit me, and I was knocked through the air about 30 feet," he said. "Plywood came tumbling on top of me. I was lucky."
The blast, which could be heard nearly 10 miles away in Manchester, stunned the neighbors who were at home.
"I was taking a nap, and then I woke up and there were sheets of glass flying all around me," said Shelley Sarsfield, who lives directly across Sunshine Way from the destroyed house. "I just closed my eyes and went out the front door. There were just fires. I thought it was an earthquake."
The blast blew a two-story hole in the side of a house near the explosion site. Houses throughout the neighborhood were missing doors, windows and portions of their roofs.
"Gas can be more volatile than dynamite," Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Bob Thomas said. He estimated the damage in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The blast came more than an hour after a cable television contractor reported striking a plastic 4-inch high-pressure gas main outside the destroyed house to BGE, officials said.
Fire officials were unsure what caused the gas explosion, but investigators said they believe that between the time the main was punctured and the gas shut off -- about 30 minutes, a BGE spokeswoman said -- gas may have seeped underground into the house.
If enough gas entered the home, the slightest spark -- such as a thermostat clicking on or off -- could cause an explosion, said Peggy Mulloy, the BGE spokeswoman.
The house did not use natural gas, according to BGE. In fact, the main -- laid in early 1993 -- served only a few homes in the neighborhood.
A temporary shelter for those displaced by the explosion was set up at the National Guard Armory on Hahn Road. But by 10 p.m., officials said about 200 evacuees who had been at the armory had all found refuge with friends and family.
The shelter was closed last night, but Red Cross workers were providing services to rescue personnel, and a spokeswoman said the armory would reopen as a service center for residents at 9 a.m. today.
School officials had to figure out yesterday afternoon what to do with students who lived in nearby homes. Traffic barriers set up by state police would have kept buses from taking home students from six schools.
School officials first let students call parents, so that as many as possible would be picked up, said Vernon Smith, director of school support services. Those who weren't picked up were taken by buses to the armory, he said.
Teachers and pupil personnel workers, part of a crisis-response team, accompanied children to the armory.
The schools affected were Westminster High School, Westminster East Middle, Westminster Elementary, Winchester Elementary, Carroll Springs and students in the Alternative Education Program near Airport Drive. Crisis counselors will be at the schools again today, officials said.
Officials and neighborhood residents said they were amazed that, aside from a woman who apparently suffered a stress-related seizure, no one was injured by the explosion.
"Quite honestly, it's miraculous to have no injuries with this much damage," said Jay Nusbaum, chief of the Westminster Volunteer Fire Department, which was one of 10 companies to respond. More than 120 firefighters, paramedics and rescue personnel were called to the scene.
"I was back in the bedroom reading stories with my son, as we always do before he goes down for a nap," said Brenda Salkin, a Snowfall Way resident whose back yard is adjacent to the side yard at 90 Sunshine Way. "All of sudden, glass is flying over him. I can't believe we didn't get hurt."
She and her 3-year-old escaped unharmed; a bedroom ceiling, a glass dining room table and most of her windows did not.
"The explosion was so loud and, before you knew it, glass was flying through the room," said Tricia Moore, who lives across the street from Ms. Salkin. "It's totally amazing watching all that glass fly by. It's amazing I'm alive. Thank God."
Debris at airport
Nancy Emminizer from Garden Way said she was leaning on her kitchen counter talking on the phone to a friend when, "the next thing, everything went boom-ba-boom. The house just shook."
She opened the sliding door and could see flames from the destroyed house. The explosion blew the glass doors of her china cupboard open.
Debris from the destroyed home landed on buildings nearly a mile away. The southeast end of the Air Business Center, at the Carroll County Regional Airport off Route 97, was littered with insulation from the demolished house. Grass, parking lots, cars and buildings were dotted with white bits of residue that fell from the sky about five minutes after workers at the park heard the explosion.
"We just felt the roof shake and thought something had happened to us," said Patty Angel, receptionist at F & M Machine, a tenant of the park.
The owners of the destroyed home, Judy E. and Robert G. Metzgar Jr., boarded a plane from Arkansas to Maryland yesterday evening, said their real estate agent, Patricia Dahlberg of Long & Foster in Hampstead.
The Metzgars, who were in the process of moving, spent Christmas in the house and left shortly afterward to go back to Arkansas. They had moved there for Mr. Metzgar's job, Ms. Dahlberg said. They still had many belongings in the house, she said.
"They had a lot of really nice antiques, things that can't be replaced," Ms. Dahlberg said. "It's just a good thing nobody got hurt."
GAS SAFETY TIPS
To prevent natural gas leaks, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. recommends that people have gas appliances checked once a year by an authorized technician -- from the utility or a private company.
Homeowners or contractors planning outside digging are urged to call the "Miss Utility" 24-hour hot line (800) 257-7777 at least two days ahead to get information on the location of underground lines.
A foul-smelling chemical compound, mercaptan, is added to the odorless natural gas so that leaks can be detected quickly. Anyone who smells the nauseating, sulfuric, rotten-eggs odor of mercaptan is urged to leave the area immediately and report the apparent leak to BGE (685-0123) or their local gas company providing service outside Central Maryland.
Most important, in the event of a leak indoors, a door should be left open -- and lights or other electrical appliances that pose the risk of a spark that could touch off an explosion should not be switched on.