SNOW HILL - Residents of this 360-year-old river town awoke yesterday to the surreal scene of police and fire investigators in dense fog, searching through a crumpled wood-frame house for the cause of a propane explosion that killed a utility worker and injured 17 people, including 13 volunteer firefighters.
While investigators worked to pin down a cause, the community came together to support the injured, mourn the death of Ignatius D. Saienni, and look over the site of the explosion that demolished the home of Sadie Dryden, 87.
For Dryden, the first whiff of trouble come about 5 p.m. Sunday. Smelling something in the basement that made her lightheaded, she called her daughter's house and asked if son-in-law Grover Wayne Young could check it out.
Young, 62, and his son David, 37, drove to her home on South Bay Street, where "the smell of gas was so strong that my husband almost didn't make it out," said Dryden's daughter, Ruth Young. "My husband told her to go out to the little screened-in porch on the side of the house to get some fresh air."
Firefighters, police and two employees of Eastern Shore Natural Gas Co., which provides propane to customers through underground lines in the Worcester County seat and nearby towns, had arrived, and Ruth Young was talking with her husband on his cell phone when she heard the explosion.
"It knocked him to the ground and threw the cell phone from his hand," she said. "When my husband came back to the phone, he was in a panic. He said, 'I can't find her. The house just exploded and I can't find her.' I slammed the phone up and said, 'I'm on my way.'"
By the time she arrived, her husband and others had pulled the injured Dryden from the rubble of the two-story home.
Saienni, 38, was crushed by a falling wall as he stood with firefighters and neighbors outside the house. A half-dozen firefighters were badly burned; others were showered with debris and flattened by the explosion.
Snow Hill's police chief, Michael McDermott, said yesterday that he had little information about Saienni, a resident of nearby Stockton. An attorney for the gas company, Mark S. Cropper, had no immediate information about the employee or the cause of the blast.
Investigators from state and county agencies and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were trying to determine the cause of the explosion, which came as town workers were diverting traffic from two main thoroughfares flooded by a foot or more of weekend rain.
McDermott said officials are fairly certain that flooding produced by more than 12 hours of heavy rain caused a leak in the gas line between the street and the meter on the outside of the house. Officials suspect that a spark from an appliance, or perhaps one produced when firefighters switched on fans to remove trapped propane, touched off the blast, he said.
Neighbors who were evacuated Sunday returned yesterday after spending the night with relatives or friends. Yellow tape roped off the demolished house and three other homes where gas leaks were detected. Debris was scattered across lawns.
By late afternoon, under clearing skies, excavation equipment was brought in to knock down the roof of the house.
Maibelle Lee shook her head in disbelief at the pile of rubble that had been her neighbor's home. She said she was standing on the porch with Dryden when the house exploded.
"I went over to find out if Miss Sadie was in the house," said Lee, whose face was covered with cuts. "I crawled out from under the porch. I know God had his hand on me. He was watching a lot of people."
Artilda Purnell said Lee's daughter Megan, 14, was standing in her front yard, wailing in terror after watching the house across the street explode.
"She was hysterical," Purnell said. "I could actually see her shaking. I feel worse just thinking about it."
Four Snow Hill firefighters - 2nd Lt. Warren Bevard, Capt. William Heiser Jr., Howard Stephens and Assistant Chief Ray Wooten - remained in critical condition last night at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, a spokeswoman there said.
Jim Phillips, vice president of the fire company, was listed in serious condition. Firefighter Jack Moyer was in guarded condition, the spokeswoman said.
Two other Snow Hill firefighters - Scott Sylc and Ed Smith - were in satisfactory condition last night at Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury, where five other Snow Hill firefighters, as well as Dryden's son-in-law and grandson and one other neighborhood resident, were treated and released.
Dryden - who has lived in Snow Hill all her life, working as a waitress, paper hanger, painter and dental office assistant - suffered cuts all over and badly bruised ribs but was not burned, her daughter said.
Dryden was moved out of the intensive-care unit yesterday morning and was in satisfactory condition at Peninsula last night, a nursing supervisor said.
For Ruth Young, who grew up here, the incident has been deeply upsetting.
"It's a small town, where everybody knows everybody else and everybody cares," she said, choking back sobs. "A couple of the firefighters were really good friends of ours, and I just feel so sorry for them."
She went to school with firefighter William Heiser Sr., whose son, the captain, was among the most seriously injured.
'That's our job'
"He [the elder Heiser] kept saying, 'That's our job. We know this can happen, and it's our job.' I can't help but feel so sorry for those guys," she said. "It just really got to me - that his son is really badly burned and he's saying, 'Hey, that's our job.' It really touched me."
Among the injured was Snow Hill Fire Chief Alfred "Sonny" Larson, who said yesterday that he smelled gas as soon as he arrived at the house.
"My assistant had called the gas company, and the gas company man had got there," said Larson, a 49-year veteran of the department and its chief off and on for 28 years. "They were coming out of the house when it blew. Then all I saw was the house flying through the air and men going down."
Firefighters, including some who are retired, came from other area companies to help out. Larson, who was hit in the face by flying glass, returned to the scene Sunday night in a hospital gown and jeans after receiving treatment at Peninsula.
Larson could not yet say how his firefighters were dealing with a tragedy that he said is the worst his department has seen.
"They were working on me and hauling away my guys in ambulances so fast I couldn't talk to all of them," he said. "They were all kind of upbeat, really, for what had happened. I think everyone will be OK."
Fire Lt. Brian Riley, who was not hurt, said the department answers 10 to 15 calls a year from residents reporting the smell of gas.
"It's not something anyone could have expected," Riley said. "Everybody around here answers calls for suspected gas."
Firefighters said some of their injured comrades were the younger, more active members of the 62-member fire and ambulance service - tireless workers who answer a majority of calls for the volunteer company that covers one of the largest response areas in the state.
"When have we ever had that many rescue people taken out at one time anywhere?" McDermott said. "It doesn't get much bigger than that for a small town."
Founded in 1642, Snow Hill sits on the banks of the now-flooded Pocomoke River, about 25 miles southwest of Ocean City. The town of 2,400 is named for a district of London.
Terry Hammerbacher, the principal at Snow Hill Middle School, was among those who returned yesterday to homes on Bay Street. Hammerbacher, who lives about three blocks from Dryden, said counselors will be available for anyone who needs help today - the opening of school in Worcester County.
"You can go down this street and point to each house where kids from our school live," Hammerbacher said. "The man who was killed has three children in our school, and several of those sent to the burn center are parents at our school. In a town this size, everybody knows everybody."