Scotch Ridge, OH- By JANE SCHMUCKER, BLADE STAFF WRITER – A 69-year-old man who was badly burned in an explosion Monday evening while installing a water heater for a neighbor was in critical condition in St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center last night.

The mid-1800s era house owned by William and Karen Miller was blown off its foundation while the family of five was away.

Yesterday, Dale E. Starkey’s condition was foremost on the minds of William and Karen Miller as they sat in the yard of their home, which the state fire marshal forbid them from entering.

The back of the three-bedroom, two-story home appeared to be in the worst condition; flames had shot out of the bathroom at 8 p.m. Monday.

Walls bulged and windows were blown out on all sides of the house. Herbert W. Martin, chief of the Pemberville-Freedom Volunteer Fire Department, said the house was structurally unsafe and should be demolished.

Mr. Starkey was alone in the basement of the Miller home at 6612 Scotch Ridge Road, across from his own home in this eastern Wood County community, when neighbors heard a sound they described as a cannon going off.

“It was an awful thud,” said Cynthia Witte, who lives two doors away. “I thought somebody had hit my house the way it felt.”

Becky Simon, who lives next door to the Millers, had the same initial thought.

She was in the basement of her home and walked outside to where her husband was mowing. They noticed smoke coming from the Miller home and glass blown out of the windows into the lawn.

Because there were no cars in the drive, they felt sure no one was home. They let the Miller’s two dogs out of the house before they heard anything.

“All of a sudden we both looked at each other and said somebody’s screaming,” Mrs. Simon said.

When they found Mr. Starkey in the basement he appeared so badly burned they did not know how to carry him out; his skin pulled away at a touch and his hair was burned off. Mr. Starkey was talking, but there were flames near him and the wait for emergency workers to arrive “just seemed forever” to Mrs. Simon.

When fire fighters arrived, neighbors helped lift Mr. Starkey out through a basement window, Chief Martin said.

Firefighters stayed at the Miller home for almost eight hours.

About 40 emergency workers from several rural fire departments were on the scene; one firefighter was treated at Wood County Hospital for smoke inhalation.

Chief Martin had not set a damage estimate or announced a cause of the fire last night. The family said the cause was a propane gas explosion.

Mr. Starkey had been a friend of the Miller family for years, helping build a shed and install paneling and floors.