US: Baltimore explosion death toll climbs as survivor rescued

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Two people are now confirmed dead following a natural gas explosion that destroyed three row houses in the eastern United States city of Baltimore and sent seven people to the hospital, authorities said Tuesday.

Baltimore Fire Department spokeswoman Blair Adams said Tuesday morning that a man was pulled from the debris shortly before 1am (05:00 GMT). A woman had been pronounced dead at the scene shortly after Monday morning's explosion. Seven others were hospitalised, five in critical condition, Adams said.

The conditions of the other two were still being determined, she said.

More than 200 people in the neighbourhood were affected by the blast, and about 30 have been in temporary shelters since the explosion, Adams said.

The natural gas explosion Monday morning levelled three row houses and ripped open a fourth, trapping people in the debris and scattering shards of glass and other rubble over the northwest Baltimore neighbourhood of Reisterstown Station. Dozens of firefighters converged on the scene to free the injured.

⚠️ANOTHER SURVIVOR RESCUED⚠️

Adult female just dug out of the rubble by multi-jurisdictional operation. #BCFDEMS transporting her to hospital in serious cond.

There are still reports of people unaccounted for. Search and rescue operations continue.
📹@wjz (we don’t have a 🚁) pic.twitter.com/FWb7pOwj6i

— Baltimore Firefighters IAFF Local 734 (@BCFDL734) August 10, 2020

"It's a disaster. It's a mess. It's unbelievable," Diane Glover, who lives across the street, told the Associated Press. Her windows where shattered and her front door was blown open. "I'm still shaken up," she said hours later.

The exact cause remains unknown, and the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company (BGE) appealed for patience as it investigates.

No gas odours were reported before the explosion, and BGE did not receive any calls about recent gas odours from the block of homes that was damaged, the utility said in a statement late Monday.

BGE also said it last inspected the area's gas mains and services in June and July of 2019 and no leaks were found.

The utility statement said it is "committed to fully understanding the cause of this incident and will inspect all BGE equipment once rescue efforts are complete. This is an active investigation and we cannot speculate on the possible causes."

The Baltimore Sun reported last year that dangerous gas leaks in the city have become much more frequent, with nearly two dozen discovered each day on average, according to the utility's reports to federal authorities.

BGE has said it has thousands of miles of obsolete pipes that need to be replaced, an effort that would cost nearly $1bn and take two decades, the newspaper said.

Baltimore Explosion

A woman stands in front of a pile of debris after an explosion that firefighters say has levelled several homes in the city [Julio Cortez/AP Photo]

Glover, 56, and her 77-year-old father, Moses Glover, were at home when the explosion shook their house, knocking over a fan and some of her DVDs. "It sounded like a bomb went off," she said.

Dean Jones, 36, who lives nearby, ran to the scene. He said he saw a mess of bricks, glass and cinder blocks - and also a box of pancakes.

"You could tell this was a house that people lived in," he said.

Jones said he and others began calling out for survivors and located an older woman who was eventually pulled out by firefighters. Kevin Matthews, who lives on the block, told The Sun that he could hear trapped children shouting: "Come get us! We're stuck!"

Barry Leventhal, whose warehouse equipment business is near the blast site, said the explosion shook his building, damaging lights and a concrete wall. Fortunately, none of the company's 10 employees were injured.

"We thought a plane crashed or something," said Leventhal.

BGE asked the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) to approve a new gas system infrastructure and a cost recovery mechanism in late 2017 to pay for upgrades.

"Founded in 1816, BGE is the oldest gas distribution company in the nation. Like many older gas systems, a larger portion of its gas main and services infrastructure consists of cast iron and bare steel - materials that are obsolete and susceptible to failure with age," the PSC wrote in a 2018 order approving a modernisation plan.

This area's gas infrastructure was installed in the early 1960s. When aging pipes fail, they tend to make headlines.

Crime, race and despair in Baltimore: Anatomy of an American City

Last year, a gas explosion ripped the facade off an office complex in Columbia, Maryland near Baltimore, affecting more than 20 businesses.

No one was injured in the explosion early on a Sunday morning. In 2016, a gas main break forced the evacuation of the Baltimore County Circuit Courthouse. Under Armour Inc had to evacuate its Baltimore office after a gas main break in 2012.

Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott said he needs "the entire city of Baltimore right now to focus on hopeful prayers for those individuals that have been impacted by this".

"I want everybody in the city really to rally around those individuals that are still fighting for their lives," Scott said at a news conference.

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