- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 3, 2001

Natural gas apparently fueled the explosion that leveled Stanley and Joan Herman's Hillandale, Md., home early on New Year's Day.
But Montgomery County Assistant Fire Marshall Brian Geraci said investigators may never know exactly what circumstances came together to make Mr. Herman, 62, and Mrs. Herman, 63, the apparent victims.
"The damage here was very devastating," Chief Geraci said, standing beside the tangle of charred beams, masonry and twisted metal that for more than 40 years was a home.
Washington Gas spokesman Tim Sargeant said natural gas service remains shut off to 12 homes in the immediate area that were rendered unsafe for habitation because of damage from the pressure wave of the blast.
Red Cross spokesman Ginny Hogan said most of the 13 displaced families are temporarily living with relatives or friends but that most began the tough task yesterday of looking for new accommodations in one of the tightest housing markets in the nation.
Mike Herman of Montgomery Village, a son of the victims, said he spent much of Monday night crying. But he said combing through the wreckage with his children yesterday helped him and them deal with the shock of their loss.
"Right now, I'm OK going through all this stuff," Mr. Herman said. "I have my kids with me so they could get some closure."
Although fire and police officials believe the bodies found in the home were Stanley and Joan Herman's, the medical examiner was awaiting additional dental records yesterday to confirm the victim's identities.
Two houses that sat beside the Hermans' on Cresthaven Drive were lifted off their foundations, and in most cases, roofs of damaged houses are being held on only by gravity, Chief Geraci said.
Washington Gas technicians bored under the street and ground for evidence of leaks in external lines that the company is required to maintain and found no problems, Mr. Sargeant said.
Insurance and federal investigators yesterday turned their attention to lines inside the Herman home and its furnace and hot-water heater, which ran on natural gas, Chief Geraci said.
Incomplete combustion in those appliances could have created a buildup of carbon monoxide, which could have disoriented the occupants, fire and rescue officials said.
A natural gas explosion requires a concentration of gas and oxygen within a specific range, fire officials said.
Natural gas is lighter than air, and evidence including roofing still dangling high in neighborhood trees indicates it accumulated in the attic, Chief Geraci said. Once that happened, switching on a light could have triggered an explosion.
Chief Geraci said investigators did not find and do not yet know if a carbon monoxide detector which should sound an alarm in the presence of carbon monoxide or a gas leak was installed in the Herman home.
And investigators are still unsure why the victims may not have recognized a sulfuric smell that emanates from mercaptan, which is added to otherwise odorless natural gas to alert people to leaks.
Mrs. Herman was said to have been sick with flulike symptoms, which could have decreased her sense of smell, Chief Geraci said.
Also a mystery is how at least two items remained intact through the blast.
One is a Dallas Cowboys cooler that Mr. Herman said his parents planned to give him for his birthday, Jan. 18. The other is a photograph of his mother on her wedding day.
Michelle Lopez a co-worker of Stanley Herman's until the part-time bus driver retired more than a year ago said he was a funny man who never tired of talking about the children's baseball team he coached.
Karl Aro was one of many nearby residents who bolted from bed when he heard the explosion about 8:45 a.m. Monday.
"I thought a plane had crashed," Mr. Aro said. "I looked out there was stuff up in the sky but no house."
Ten other Montgomery County families driven from their homes by fires in Gaithersburg and Burtonsville on Monday and in Rockville yesterday also are looking for places to live.

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