Allentown Blast and Fire Claimed 5 Lives Including 4-Month-Old Boy

Crews had to dig through reinforced concrete to shut off 12-inch gas main that fueled fire for hours

Five lives were lost, dozens of homes destroyed and officials are searching for answers following a horrific blast that shook Allentown on Wednesday night.

Victims of the explosion and ensuing fire at 13th and Allen Streets ranged in age from a four-month-old boy to a 79-year-old man, officials said Thursday.

Cadaver dogs helped find the fifth person Thursday evening.  The victims comprise two families who lived in the two homes leveled by the initial blast at about 10:45 p.m. The victims include a 16-year-old girl and 69-year-old woman. Lehigh County Coroner Scott Grim said he expects to release their identities tomorrow. The Morning Call has identified the victims in its report. 

Several reports indicate that a man lost his mother, daughter and grandson while he was at work.

Ladder trucks spent much of the night dousing the block of homes with endless arcs of water illuminated by emergency lights against the night sky. Fire hoses snaked through the neighborhood as onlookers gathered in grim silence on street corners and watched the battle.

Crews had to dig through reinforced concrete to shut off a 12-inch gas main that fueled the fire for more than four hours. The cast iron main dates back to the 1920s but has no history of leakage, according to a UGI official. Fire Chief Robert Scheirer said the only other gas shutoffs were inaccessible - inside the homes or at the sidewalk.

"We couldn't get UGI close enough to open the street and find the valves," he said.

Investigators are still trying identify the cause of the disaster that destroyed eight homes and damaged 47 other properties. UGI, the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission and the National Transportation Safety Board will participate in the probe.

"This will take probably some time to wrap up this investigation and determine the cause of the blast," Mayor Ed Pawlowski said.

City officials met with reporters inside Gross Towers on Allen Street as front-end loaders and emergency crews continued to wade through debris of flattened or charred row homes nearby. 

"We have to clear debris to do the investigation," the fire chief said.

Gross Towers, a high-rise complex for senior citizens, was the scene of a fatal gas blast 17 years ago. Allentown's south side lost four homes on Mohawk Street in a similar explosion, Chief Sheirer noted.

"This situation really is not strange to the city of Allentown," he said.

To help displaced residents and families of victims, call the Red Cross at 610-865-4400.

TGRAY February 10, 2011 at 10:11 PM
Tom Coombe February 10, 2011 at 10:24 PM
By the way, Pawlowski said at this news conference that if you want to donate, donate money. The Red Cross says it costs $400 to shelter, feed, clothe & provide shoes for 1 adult.


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