A house explosion caused by a gas leak killed a utility worker and injured 17 others, including 13 volunteer firefighters, in the small Lower Shore town of Snow Hill yesterday evening.
Officials said that they were trying to determine exactly what sparked the blast, which shook houses several blocks away so forcefully that some residents thought they were experiencing an earthquake.
"This is a terrible tragedy," Snow Hill Police Chief Michael McDermott said of the blast that leveled the house of 87-year-old Sadie Dryden, who was among the injured.
Firefighters, police and at least one employee of the Eastern Shore Gas Co. responded to Dryden's report that she smelled gas in her house in the 300 block of S. Bay St., officials said.
About 5:30 p.m., the explosion ripped through the home as firefighters and a gas company worker were trying to ventilate the structure.
The blast destroyed the house, leaving only its Cape Cod-style roof lying on a pile of rubble. It also blew out windows of neighboring homes and knocked down nearly all the firefighters standing outside the building.
Three police officers picked up the fallen firefighters' hoses and put out the blaze, McDermott said.
Officials last night were tallying and assessing the severity of injuries. The gas company employee who died might have been standing outside the house when a wall fell and crushed him, officials said.
The 17 injured were rushed to Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury, where three remained in serious condition last night in the intensive care unit, officials said.
After being stabilized at the hospital, six firefighters were taken by ambulance to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. They suffered "severe burns," McDermott said.
Two other people were undergoing treatment last night for minor injuries at Peninsula, and six were treated and released, officials said.
The condition of Dryden, the owner of the house, was not available last night.
After the explosion, officials evacuated the area, sending displaced families to nearby All Hallows Episcopal Church. By late last night, most residents had returned to their homes.
McDermott said heavy rains - more than 14 inches was reported in Snow Hill between 10 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. yesterday - might have disrupted underground gas lines, but a more thorough investigation would be needed to determine the blast's cause.
Investigators with the state fire marshal's office and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will inspect the site today, he said.
The blast shook more than houses - it rattled the psyche of a town and its volunteer fire company.
"This doesn't happen here," McDermott said. "We don't lose 17 people to injuries to something like this. It's a tragedy when one person dies, and you have a fire company that is very close-knit, and it's going to take them a long time to recover from it. They are good people."
Kristi Carmean was sitting on her porch with her father, a volunteer firefighter, when their radio scanner reported a gas leak at the house on South Bay Street.
Carmean's father, Jerry, rushed to the firehouse and then to the site about three blocks from his house.
"I heard the sirens of firetrucks going to the leak," said Kristi Carmean, 31. "Then we just heard this loud explosion. It shook our house, the whole house shook."
Carmean was worried about her father until he called home to say he wasn't harmed.
But other firefighters weren't so lucky, Carmean said.
"We're just praying for the families," she said.
Marvin Lyles, 52, lives a block from the blast. He was watching Sports Center on ESPN when he heard an explosion that "sounded like a plane breaking the sound barrier."
Photographs fell off his television set, and potted plants outside his front door tipped over. "It rattled the whole house pretty good," Lyles said. "I thought it was an earthquake. I thought the ground was falling underneath us."
Lyles went to the blast site and saw devastation.
"It was like someone had taken one of those steel balls to the house and wrecked it," he said. "It was totaled."
Flora Brown, 38, lives a few blocks from the explosion, and her husband, also a volunteer firefighter, responded to the leak. The blast knocked him to the ground but he was not harmed, Brown said.
"It was like a war zone," she said, describing firefighters and police officers running around and helicopters flying overhead.
"Everyone was so dazed. I had no idea what I was going to find, whether my husband was alive or not. I wanted to see him first, know that he was OK."
Sun staff writers Johnathon E. Briggs and Chris Guy, and photographer Doug Kapustin contributed to this article.