Allentown, PA Residential Gas Explosion, Feb 2011

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BLAST KILLS FIVE IN PENNSYLVANIA.

Allentown, Pa. - For the residents of a block of brick row homes here on North 13th Street, Wednesday night went from ordinary to horrific in one unexpected flash.
Bill Yanett had just paid his bills and put stamps on the envelopes. He and his wife, Dorothy, were waiting for the 11 o'clock news to come on. A couple of houses away, Don O'Shall had just closed a book and was walking into the dining room. His son, Matt, was asleep upstairs.
Suddenly, at 10:45, an earth-shattering explosion ended the calm. The Yanetts were afraid their roof had caved in from the heavy snow. Windows were blown out and furniture crashed.
"You just heard this big bang, than all this cracking and banging and booming, like a war going on," Mrs. Yanett, 64, said Thursday, burying her tears in her husband's shoulder as they recounted the scene. Five of their neighbors were killed, including a 4-month-old boy.
City officials said Thursday afternoon that gas lines running underneath the neighborhood had most likely fueled a fire that ripped through the eight houses on the block, but they backed off earlier suggestions that the initial explosion was caused by a gas leak.
"We can't say it was a gas explosion," Robert Scheirer, the Allentown Fire Chief, told reporters at a late-afternoon news briefing.
None of the neighbors said they had smelled gas at any point. John Walsh, president of UGI Utilities, the local gas company, which serves 560,000 customers in eastern Pennsylvania, said crews had completed a routing survey of the neighborhood within the last week and found nothing unusual.
"We are still at the beginning stages of the investigation," Mr. Walsh said.
In the morning, Joseph Swope, a spokesman for UGI, had said, "It certainly appears to be a natural gas explosion, but we haven't been able to identify the leak yet."
Utility officials said the gas line was a 12-inch low-pressure main, made of cast iron and installed in the 1920s.
Nationwide, it was the latest of several gas-related explosions in recent months. Last month, a 12-inch gas main exploded in a residential neighborhood in Philadelphia, killing a gas company employee and injuring six other people. The cause of that blast remains under investigation. In December, two people died when a gas main explosion destroyed a furniture store in Wayne, Mich.
In September, a natural gas pipe burst in San Bruno, Calif., killing eight people and destroying nearly 40 houses. The National Transportation Safety Board said that pipe had numerous flaws in its welds.
Two gas line explosions a day apart in June killed three people in Texas.
The number of deaths here was the most since San Bruno. Local officials did not release the names of the victims, but family members and friends identified them to The Morning Call, the local newspaper as:
WILLIAM HALL, 79.
his wife BEATRICE HALL, 74, both of 544 North 13th Street.
OFELIA BEN, 69.
CATHERINE CRUZ, 16.
MATTHEW MANEUL CRUZ, 4 months old all of 542 North 13th Street.
The initial blast was so strong that it blew Mr. O'Shall's front door off. He though a bomb had exploded and he ran outside.
"There was debris everywhere and the lights were all out," Mr. O'Shall, 61, a locksmith, said. "The only light was from BEA'S house, and it was on fire."
The next moment, he said, would be seared into his memory forever.
"Somebody said, 'Look up there,' and I won't tell you what I saw," he said, tightening his lips as his eyes grew watery. "I saw BEA. Through the window. Her house was gone," he said, but a small portion of it remained.
"You could see her figure in there in black, like a silhouette, and the flames just going back and forth," he said. "She was going like this," he said, and swayed slightly. "She was on fire."
After the initial explosion, the fire ripped through the other houses in rapid succession.
"You could see it was going progressively," said Mr. Yanett, 69, a former bodyguard for Mack Truck executives. He and his wife lived in one house on the bock and owned another next door, which they had just renovated. They watched the fire advance from a short distance away.
"We were like, 'There goes Bea's house, there goes Ed's house, there goes Don's house,'" Mr. Yanett said.
"Then it was, 'Oh no! There's my house! And my other house! There's Tony's house.' They're all gone."

The New York Times New York 2011-02-11