ALLENTOWN, Pa. — A thunderous gas explosion devastated a rowhouse neighborhood, killing five people, and suspicion fell on an 83-year-old cast-iron gas main. The fiery blast was the latest natural gas disaster to raise questions about the safety of the nation's aging, 2.5-million-mile network of gas and liquid pipelines.
The explosion, which flattened two rowhouses and set fire to a block of homes late Wednesday night, occurred in an area where the underground gas main lacked shut-off valves. It took utility workers five hours in the freezing cold to punch through ice, asphalt and concrete and seal the 12-inch main with foam, finally cutting off the flow of gas that fed the raging flames.
Lehigh County Coroner Scott Grim said four bodies had been recovered — a 4-month-old boy, a 16-year-old girl, a 69-year-old woman and a 79-year-old man — and cadaver dogs searched for the fifth person known to be dead. Their names were not immediately released.
Forty-seven homes were damaged, and eight of them appeared to be a total loss, said Allentown fire Chief Robert Scheirer.
The exact spot of the explosion and what triggered it were under investigation.
"The investigation will look at the 12-inch main but will also look at service lines that feed gas into the nearby homes and businesses, as well as potential causes inside the home," Scheirer said. "Until that investigation is complete, it's premature to conclude exactly where the leak took place."
Joe Swope, a spokesman for Reading-based UGI Utilities Inc., said that a routine leak-detection test in that area had come up clean on Tuesday and that there had been no calls about gas odors before the explosion.
Swope said there is no history of leaks for that section of the gas main.
There have been other recent incidents of gas pipeline explosions.
Last month in Philadelphia, a gas main explosion sent a 50-foot fireball into the sky, killing a utility worker, injuring six people and forcing dozens from their homes.
And last September, eight were killed, dozens injured and 55 homes left uninhabitable when a gas pipeline in San Bruno, Calif., exploded.