Coroner: Explosion kills 5

Five people were killed late Wednesday in a natural gas explosion in this residential neighborhood in Allentown, Pa. The fire leveled two houses and damaged scores more.

Five people were killed late Wednesday in a natural gas explosion in this residential neighborhood in Allentown, Pa. The fire leveled two houses and damaged scores more. Photo by The Associated Press.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — A natural gas explosion rocked a downtown neighborhood overnight, killing five people, leveling two houses and spawning fires that burned for hours through an entire row of neighboring homes.

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Emergency crews respond to the massive explosion Wednesday in Allentown, Pa.

Lehigh County Coroner Scott Grim said Thursday that all but one body had been recovered from the debris. The victims ranged in age from 4 months to 79 years old, fire Chief Robert Scheirer said.

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.”

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

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.

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 Swope.

Utility crews had worked to shut off the gas mains in the area. The type of main used in that area typically does not have valves that allow for simply shutting off the stream of gas, a spokesman for the utility said in an e-mail.

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.

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