A deadly explosion at 13th and W. Allen streets in Allentown and ensuing fire destroyed eight homes and damaged up to 16 other properties Wednesday night.
Reports from our scanner service and from local news say at least one person died in the blast. Two elderly residents of the first home, which was leveled by the blast, are unaccounted for.
UGI crews had to dig through snow to shut off gas service so fire crews could extinguish the blaze. The gas-fueled inferno burned for more than four hours.
Residents of a two-block area were evacuated.
Emergency workers on the scene declared it a level one multi-casualty incident.
"My first priority is to get the gas shut off," Allentown Fire Chief Robert C. Scheirer said around 1 a.m. when asked for details of the disaster. There was an unconfirmed police scanner report that one firefighter was treated for injuries that were not life threatening.
An Emmaus ambulance and three crew members were among dozens of emergency responders who swarmed the scene to assist firefighters.
"We're here to evacuate Gross Towers East and West due to a gas leak," said parademic Devin Neitz. "There's still the possibility of an explosion. That's why we're standing by."
Rob Fenner, a paramedic with Macungie Ambulance, said his crew is rarely called to Allentown but was ready to help.
A fleet of LANTA buses transported the residents of the Gross Towers apartments to Ag Hall at the Allentown Fairgrounds. Outside of the complex, elderly residents clad in pajamas and slippers -- some using walkers, others in wheel chairs -- were escorted onto waiting buses.
The Morning Call reported that the explosion was reported at 10:45 p.m. Initial radio reports indicated that there was a fire and a debris field. The explosion was heard for several miles, as WFMZ reported that viewers called from as far away as Center Valley to say that their homes had been shaken.
By 11:20 a.m., a third alarm had been called out and the fire department was reporting that the entire block was considered structurally unsound and that no one was to enter any of the buildings.
A few minutes before, the Allentown Fire Department reported that flames were showing from under ground along the sidewalk. The gas company that serves the area, UGI, was called out for an immediate response. Multiple UGI vans and other gas company vehicles were on the scene.
Two neighbors said the initial house explosion was at the home of a woman who was known in the neighborhood as the "Avon Lady," because she sold Avon cosmetic products.
"It shook my whole entire house," said Shawn Henry, who lives at 15th and Gordon streets. He said he ran outside and immediately saw the flames, then called 911.
"It was bad," Henry said. "There were flames shooting out like crazy. It kept going."
Another bystander said the explosion blew the doors off of a nearby car wash. Evidence of the blast was visible within a block of the scene. Windows were blown out of Kline's Auto at 630 N. 13th St.
"Everything exploded," said Deborah Conrad, a resident of Gross Towers West, who said she was at nearby Rookies restaurant when it happened. She went home to find that windows had blown out of her apartment. Police then pounded on her door as residents were ordered to evacuate.
Neitz ,with Emmaus Ambulance, said he was dispatched at a little before 11 p.m. He saw Allentown firefighters battling the initial blaze when he arrived.
"It was in flames when we got here," he said. Neitz, a paramedic for more than 10 years, said he hasn't seen anything this bad since a gas explosion at Gross Towers in June 1994.
That blast caused one fatality, 66 injuries and about $5 million in damage, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report. The 1994 explosion was caused by a ruptured coupling in a two-inch gas service line.