York, PA – Karen Rascoe had a day off from her job at Bell Socialization Services on Tuesday and did what she does on a lot of her days off: She went to visit her mother, Mary, at her home in the 400 block of East College Avenue.

She was sitting on the porch about 1:15 p.m., talking to one of her mother’s neighbors, when she smelled natural gas.

Her mind immediately flashed to the March 10 gas explosion that leveled two homes and led to the razing of three others, coincidentally, in the 900 block of West College Avenue. That explosion followed one that destroyed a home in the 2400 block of South Queen Street on Feb. 28.

“It was kind of frightening,” Rascoe said.

She called Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania’s hotline and, within minutes, crews from the utility company were scouring the street, seeking the source of the odor. York City firefighters also arrived shortly after the call, as did police.

The crews tracked the odor to 408 E. College Ave., a vacant rental property two doors down from her mother’s rowhouse. A gas company worker entered the house, using a key from a lockbox on the front door, and immediately knew he had found the leak, Rascoe said.

The house was full of gas, Rascoe said.

“I kept thinking it could be another West College Avenue situation,” Rascoe said.

The gas company shut off the gas and cleared it from the house. Seeking the source of the leak, gas company workers went to the basement, where finding the leak proved easy.

An iron pipe carrying gas inside the house had been broken, as if someone had tried to rip it out.

It didn’t take long to piece together what had happened.

One of the basement windows had been broken, covered on the outside with a recycling container and trash. Neighbors suspect drug users had broken into the house to steal copper pipes from the basement and had mistaken the iron gas pipe for a copper water pipe.

Neighbors suspect the potential thieves had been scared off when gas flowed from the pipe.

Other neighbors reported hearing people inside the vacant house, but they were unable to tell whether someone had broken into the building because the recycling container hid the smashed-out window.

It’s a fairly common occurrence in the city. In this case, the theft could have led to a disaster, said Columbia Gas spokesman Matt Pitzarella.

He said the gas company has run into this kind of thing before, with people stealing pipes or appliances from vacant homes, particularly in urban areas.

He called Rascoe an “unsung hero” for calling the gas company immediately. He said on the rare occasions when there is an explosion, he always sees reports of neighbors saying they had smelled gas beforehand but had not called the gas company.

“That’s a close call when something like that happens,” Pitzarella said. “The people who call really are unsung heroes.”