Ross Bollin, left, and brothers Evan and Alan Fitzpatrick watch Columbis Gas officials investigate the blast-damaged are around the home of Ester Zall.
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An elderly woman was hurt yesterday when a natural gas explosion ripped gaping holes into the front and back walls of her two-story Sylvania Township villa as Columbia Gas of Ohio employees worked at the curb outside her residence to shut off a leaking gas line.
The force of the blast was so strong that it buckled the brick and wood-frame exterior walls of the structure valued at about $330,000, shattered a second-floor skylight, and spewed debris over a wide area.
Neighbors identified the occupant as Esther Zall, who had only lived at 9015 Whispering Pine Circle, near Bancroft Street and Crissey Road, a relatively short time.
Township Deputy Fire Chief Tom Eisel said the woman was taken to Flower Hospital, and her injuries did not appear to be life-threatening. Hospital officials said last night she was not listed as a patient and had no further information.
Most of the residents of the Berkshire Village villas, part of the Village at Forest Lake, were at work, school, or away when the blast occurred at 3:34 p.m.
"I've seen two tours in Vietnam, and I never saw anything quite that bad," said Phil Selden, a Navy veteran, as he surveyed what was left of the residence from his front lawn across the street.
The blast resulted after a utility contractor accidently cut an underground gas line running along the curb while apparently installing underground electrical lines to power ornamental street lights on Whispering Pine, Columbia Gas officials said.
"There is speculation that gas migrated up to the house," said Gina Thompson, a Columbia Gas spokesman. "How it got there, we don't know."
Natural gas may have seeped into a storm sewer or followed along another underground utility line leading to the house, officials said. Gas filled at least a portion of the house before some sort of spark, perhaps from a furnace or water heater, ignited the fumes.
Columbia Gas officials acknowledged their crews were on the scene of the leak for 51 minutes, raising questions about whether the woman and others in the neighborhood should have been evacuated as the crews worked to close the gas line in front of her home.
The first Columbia employees arrived at 2:43 p.m., Columbia Gas officials said.
Brian Schenk, operations center director for Columbia Gas, said his crews dug a hole in front of the house and had just closed off the gas main moments before the explosion.
"We did it in very quick time," he said. But he left unanswered the matter of urging residents to leave their homes during the shutoff attempt.
"We are still looking at all that," he said. "I haven't spoken to all our employees. They are trained for this situation and, at this point, I can't answer that."
About two dozen area homes lost electric power for several hours after the blast.
The concussion from the blast left the few neighbors who were at home stunned.
"It was real scary," said Martha Ortiz, who lives nearby and had returned home from shopping a few minutes before the blast.
"I didn't know what it was," Ms. Ortiz said. "I was so afraid. I looked out the back window and saw all the smoke and insulation flying."
Glenn Ann Anteau, who lives east of the villas, said she arrived before rescue crews after her son told her he thought he spotted a house fire. From her vantage point on Bancroft, she saw rescue workers put a neck brace on the woman and carry her to safety.
"There she was with two guys holding her until the fire department came," Ms. Anteau said. "It's just unbelievable. I am amazed that woman survived it."
No damage estimate was available.
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