ALLENTOWN, Pa. - A natural gas explosion rocked a downtown neighborhood overnight, leveling two houses and spawning fires that burned for hours through an entire row of neighboring homes. Three people were killed, including an infant, and at least two others were unaccounted for Thursday.
A couple in their 70s lived in a two-story row house that blew up about 10:45 p.m. Wednesday, police Chief Roger MacClean said. Michelle Hall told The Morning Call newspaper that her in-laws, Beatrice Hall, 74, and William, 79, lived in the home.
The victims ranged in age from 4 months to 79 years old, fire Chief Robert Scheirer said, but city officials have not released the names of those killed or missing.
The cause of the explosion was unclear. The blaze was put out early Thursday, delayed by the difficulty of digging through packed layers of snow and ice to a ruptured underground gas line that was feeding the flames, Scheirer said. About 500 to 600 people who were evacuated were allowed to return home.
Six people had been reported missing earlier, but Scheirer says officials believe one of them was not home at the time of the blast.
Scheirer predicted eight houses would be lost and another 16 damaged.
A routine leak-detection check of the gas main that serves the area on the day before the explosion found no problems, a spokesman for a utility said.
There's no history of leaks for that section of 12-inch cast-iron main, and there were no calls about gas odors before the explosion, said Joe Swope of Reading-based UGI Utilities Inc.
The utility used foam to seal the gas main on both ends of a one-block area at about 3:45 a.m. Thursday. It took crews some time to cut through reinforced concrete underneath the pavement, Swope said.
The blast was so powerful that it sent a flat-screen computer monitor sailing into the back of Antonio Arroyo, whose house was on the opposite end of the row from the explosion.
"I thought we were under attack," he recalled from a shelter where some 250 people took refuge in the hours after the blast.
Arroyo and his wife, Jill, both 43, lost their home in the fire.
Antonio said he ran outside and saw that an entire house had been leveled, a fireball now raging in the spot where it once stood.
"What I saw, I couldn't believe," said Arroyo, a community volunteer.
He and his wife, a nurse, fled their home with only the clothes on their back. They planned to return at daylight to see what they could salvage. Jill Arroyo broke down sobbing when she recalled her son's athletic memorabilia _ likely lost in the blaze _ including DVDs of his high school football games.
"The DVDs are gone. All his trophies are gone. All gone," she sobbed as her husband comforted her.
Tricia Aleski, who lives a few blocks away, said the explosion jangled her nerves.
"I was reading a book in the living room and it felt like a giant kicked the house. It all shook. Everything shook," she said. "I checked the stove and everything, (to) make sure everything's off."
Jason Soke was watching college basketball when he heard and felt the explosion. It rattled his windows. He went to the third floor and looked out and saw flames and smoke.
"Your senses kind of get stunned," he said. "It puts you on edge."