Denver, CO – By Hector Gutierrez, Rocky Mountain News

January 8, 2004

Occupants of a small home leveled by an explosion near downtown tried to leave the house after smelling a strong gas odor but were unable to get out in time, a resident said Wednesday.

Miguel Angel Cardoza, 5, suffered serious burns to his face, arms and legs in Tuesday night’s explosion, and is being treated at Children’s Hospital, said Maria Ortiz, the boy’s cousin.

Ortiz said she and seven others were able to escape serious injuries. They include her 20-month-old daughter and children ages 9 years and 4 months.

Ortiz, 21, had returned home from school Tuesday night when she noticed a strong odor. She was talking to other family members about it and decided to call a hospital nurse line.

“I told (the nurse) it smelled like gas, and that it was strong,” Ortiz said. “She told me, ‘The best thing you should do is get out of the house.’ “

As Ortiz and relatives were rounding up other family members an explosion ripped through the duplex at 832 Kalamath St.

“We didn’t hear noise because it was like the air pushed us out,” said Ortiz, who is four months pregnant. Ortiz said that the door fell on her and knocked her down. The blast singed hair and skin of other family members.

“We lost everything – papers, the titles to our vehicles. The only (things) we have is the clothes on our backs,” said Ortiz whose family had lived in the rental home for three months.

The Mile High Chapter of the American Red Cross is providing vouchers for the residents to buy clothing and stay at a hotel.

Ortiz and her relatives escaped, but her pet Chihuahua, Bruno, is missing.

“I guess we’re alive, and that’s a good thing,” she said.

Fire investigators haven’t determined the source of the blast but natural gas could be the cause, said Lt. Philip Champagne, fire department spokesman.

Neighbors told investigators they also noticed a smell of natural gas “within 15 minutes of the explosion,” the lieutenant said. Other neighbors smelled the gas hours earlier but no one reported it.

One resident, Marjorie Martinez, who lives two houses away from the duplex, noticed a strong smell when she got up from bed about 3 a.m. Tuesday.

“I said, ‘It smells like gas is leaking,’ ” said Martinez, 86. “I checked, and I said, ‘It’s not coming from in here.’ “