- Associated Press - Thursday, February 10, 2011

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — 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.

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.

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.

A neighbor, Dorothy Yanett, called them “a beautiful couple” who were active in the Methodist church and a local food bank. “Just lovely people.”

Chief Scheirer said 47 buildings were damaged, and eight were expected to be total losses.

The cause of the explosion was unclear. The state Public Utility Commission is investigating and looking for any violations of state or federal law, said agency spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher.

“We don’t know if it was the main, we don’t know if it was the service line, if it was inside the house, outside the house,” Ms. Kocher said. “It’s all very preliminary at this point.”

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, Chief Scheirer said. About 500 to 600 people who were evacuated were allowed to return home.

Ms. Yanett, 65, has lived on the block for nearly 40 years. She was in her living room with her husband awaiting the evening news when she heard a series of booms, she said.

“I couldn’t tell where it was coming from,” she said. “Everything falling and crashing, glass, just a nightmare.”

She found glass in the shoes she was going to put to leave the house.

“There was no odor, there was no smell. Then it was like all hell broke loose.”

Residents of block are close-knit, she said.

“I can never go back here again,” she said, choking up. “Too many memories.”

The day before the explosion, a routine leak-detection check of the gas main that serves the area found no problems, said Joe Swope of Reading-based UGI Utilities Inc. The main dates to 1928.

Story Continues →