5 people dead after Allentown explosion

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - February 10, 2011

Lehigh County Coroner Scott Grim said in a news conference late Thursday afternoon that four bodies have been recovered.

Shortly after 8:00 p.m., officials told Action News they discovered the remains of the fifth body.

The coroner did not identify the victims, however he did release the ages of the bodies that have been recovered. They are:

  • 4-month-old boy
  • 16-year-old girl
  • 69-year-old woman
  • 79-year-old man
DNA testing will need to be used to positively identify the fifth victim.

Neighbors identified two of the victims of the blast as William and Beatrice Hall, longtime community members who were well known and well liked by neighbors.

"Super nice people. Super nice. We talked almost every day," neighbor Bill Yanett said.

A sixth person who had been unaccounted for was later found alive.

The blast happened at 10:50 p.m. Wednesday. Firefighters arrived to find homes leveled and the block on fire. Assisting fire crews were called in from all across the Lehigh Valley to help battle the blaze.

The fire that burned through the night was brought under control around 4:00 a.m. and the natural gas leak that apparently fueled the fire has finally been capped.

Two homes have been completely leveled and six other homes are considered destroyed. Another 47 homes were damaged.

Investigators said on Thursday that they could not yet definitively say the blast was caused by natural gas. What officials do know is that natural gas fed the resulting fire, adding to the devastation.

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 people who lived near the blast site described a feeling that all of the air had been sucked out of the room just before the explosion.

"I screamed out to my wife 'Are you okay?' and she said 'I think I'm okay. There's a car on fire," said Antonio Arroyo.

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.

He and his wife Jill, a nurse, fled their home with only the clothes on their back.

"There wasn't much time to think about what was going on or what was happening or to get anything out of the house. We just had to go," said Jill Arroyo.

The horror of what's happened and the loss of life are being felt deeply in the community.

Matt O'Shall of 13th Street was blasted out of a sound sleep by the explosion. When he and his father Don scrambled out of their home to see what was going on, Don saw a horrifying sight that may haunt him the rest of his life. His neighbors were the Halls and he saw Beatrice caught in the flames that claimed her life.

"Her house was gone. There was only like a corner of this house left with one window. And you could see her figure in there in black, like a silhouette and the flames just going back and forth," Don said.

Bill and Dorothy Yanett of 13th Street were watching TV last night when they hear the explosion.

"This was unbelievable. You swear you're in a war. It's shock and it was just terrible. Terrible," Dorothy said.

Bill ran upstairs because he thought snow had caused the roof to cave in.

"The dressers were all tipped over; the stuff was out of the drawers. Windows were blown wide open," Bill said.

Bill ran to try to help neighbors, but within minutes he says police were clearing the neighborhood as the fire seemed to spread from house to house.

Frightened residents wondered what in the world was happening.

"It was like a big boom, like a big explosion. At first it's like is this a terrorist attack or what happened? It felt like an earthquake," resident Deborah Conrad said.

"I was scared because I never saw something big like that," neighbor Joaquin Aponte said.

As emergency response crews worked the scene, all day long people came as close as they could to the blast site inquiring about the victims.

One woman was worried about a friend who works at the paint store nearby.

"I don't know where he is. I called him and he doesn't answer the phone," Rosa Lanyi said.

Some 600 people were forced to flee their houses and apartments in the middle of the night. By Thursday morning many people were being allowed to go back home.

Emergency management officials say those evacuations went amazingly well considering an entire block was going up in flames and there were fears of a second explosion.

Eight residents were taken to a local hospital to be checked out for minor ailments. One firefighter suffered an ankle injury.

Last month in Philadelphia, a gas main explosion caught on video sent a 50-foot fireball into the sky, killing a utility worker, injuring six people and forcing dozens from their homes. Fire officials were investigating that blast.

How to help

People have been asking how to help in the aftermath of this disaster, officials said. They responded by saying the biggest single need the Red Cross has right now is money.

Anyone willing to donate can call the Red Cross at 610-865-4400

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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