Wilmington, DE – Natural gas leak caused blast, inspectors say The News Journal


A natural gas leak sparked a fiery explosion Friday morning that destroyed a church near 37th and North Market streets in Wilmington, authorities said.

One woman was slightly injured when she was trapped in her car after burning debris fell onto the vehicle in a nearby parking lot. The state Fire Marshal’s Office and investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms determined that the blast at Bethel Temple Pentecostal Assembly was accidental. A faulty pipe inside the church leaked natural gas into the building, causing the explosion. Damage was estimated at $100,000.

Witnesses described hearing an explosion about 10:30 a.m., followed by a fast-spreading fire that consumed the two-story building at 8 E. 37th St. No one was in the church at the time. Wilmington firefighters arrived within minutes and extinguished the blaze about 11 a.m. By then, the building had collapsed into a pile of burning rubble.

The force of the blast shook nearby buildings and blew the garage doors off a building about 100 feet across the street, Wilmington Fire Department spokesman Lt. Michael Schaal said.

Concrete rubble shot into the air, burying a blue Mercedes in front of the church and showering down on a parked car in the adjacent Auto Zone lot.

“I was inside working under a truck when it went up,” said mechanic Darrell Jeffries, who works at John’s Automotive on Market Street.

Jeffries rushed across the street with fellow mechanic Georgio Marconi, who was changing valve cover gaskets on a truck when he was startled by the explosion. The two men said they started digging a woman out of a car crushed by the flying debris.

“Her side of the car was crushed,” said Marconi, who pulled the shaken woman from the car. “I’m surprised she’s still alive.” Doris M. Harris, 27, of Wilmington, was treated at Wilmington Hospital, the state Fire Marshal’s Office said.

Bill Mace, who owns a rental property adjacent to the church, said he was cutting a piece of wood downstairs in the house when the explosion occurred. The yellow siding on Mace’s home began to melt and a nearby tree was in flames when firefighters arrived, he said.

Other witnesses said they felt the blast from a block away. Rondell Robinson, 28, of Newark, was shopping at the Rite Aid and said the store’s shelves shook.

“The fire looked real intense,” said Robinson, who ran outside and saw debris flying. The Brandywine Hundred Fire Company responded to assist Wilmington, which was first on the scene. County police also brought a bomb-sniffing dog to sift the rubble.

The investigation was initially halted because the building’s gas line was still on. Conectiv contractors had to dig a hole in the street to shut off utilities.