OH – By KATHY VAUGHAN, Times Reporter Staff Writer

Emergency personnel who responded to an explosion and fire early Thursday in Holmes County were amazed that the 15 people in the house escaped what could have been a much larger tragedy.

A leak from the gas-operated refrigerator caused an explosion that tore out the front wall of the cellar house occupied by the Willis Hershberger family, according to Baltic Fire Chief Ron Felton. The house is located at 2418 Clark Township Rd. 183, northwest of Baltic, and is owned by Mose Yoder, also of Township Rd. 183.

Nine members of the family were taken to area hospitals, including two who were transferred to the burn unit of Children’s Hospital Medical Center of Akron, according to Bob Smith, owner of Smith Ambulance and a paramedic.

Seven others were treated at other hospitals and some were released, but their names and details on all of their conditions were unavailable.

Not all of the victims, who ranged in age from 10 to the mid-20s, resided at the residence where the family had gathered to celebrate the Amish feast of Old Christmas.

Felton said he believes the patients in Akron Children’s are in serious condition.

“The real bad burns were on their feet. One girl had her hands burned pretty bad,” Felton said.

“The house was heated with a boiler, and we found out there was a gas leak in the gas-powered refrigerator. The state fire marshal and three firefighters determined there was leakage, and gas went throughout the house. There was a wall heater, and the pilot light on the wall heater ignited it (the gas). That’s why it blew the front wall out.”

Felton said his department was called about 5 a.m. to the home. He said he believes a family member ran up to a half mile to use a pay telephone.

Sugarcreek and Berlin fire departments assisted Baltic, and nine emergency squads also responded.

“When we got there, most of the house was burned down,” Felton said. “The front was blown out, the roof was down and it was engulfed in flames. It was a total loss.”

Felton said a number of the occupants were not injured but were checked out at either Pomerene Memorial Hospital at Millersburg or Union Hospital at Dover.

A similar fire occurred at the house last Jan. 5, but the house was vacant at that time, Felton recalled. He said that fire also was caused by a gas leak through the hot water heater.

“They were so fortunate,” Smith said of the victims. “It had such a potential for a major disaster. Schweitzer agreed.“Our prayers were answered,” she said.