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House flattened, two critically burned in explosion on SW Side

Phocourtesy Chicago Fire Department.

Photo courtesy of Chicago Fire Department.

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Updated: November 13, 2011 6:18PM

Two people were critically injured Sunday morning when an explosion and fire destroyed their Southwest Side house and heavily damaged the homes of their neighbors.

What had been a brick split-level house in the 6600 block of South Keating was a smoldering pile of rubble after firefighters extinguished the flames. Neighbors said the blast occurred about 6:30 a.m., hours after some noticed the odor of natural gas on the block.

A couple in the home managed to escape but was severely burned, said witnesses and fire officials. The man and woman were taken to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn with second-degree burns, said a Fire Department spokesman.

A neighbor, Rudy Venegas, said the blast knocked him out of bed and that when he looked out his window, he could see debris raining down. The home across the street from his had collapsed on itself and “the whole roof was at eye level,” he said.

Another neighbor, 14-year-old Muhammad Hasam, said flames were whipped by the wind and flared higher than the tallest trees on the block.

Officials said the cause was under investigation. Peoples Gas crews were working at the scene.

Bonnie Johnson, a spokeswoman for the gas company, said service has been temporarily cut off to the homes on the west side of Keating from 6400 to 6700 south. She said crews are taking gas readings at every home in that area.

A cousin of one of the victims identified the people in the home at Pedro Sepulveda and Ana Oyola. Juanita Torres, who said she is a cousin of Oyola, said her relative is a staffer at a school. Sepulveda, Torres said, works at Midway Airport.

Jabar Wheatley, who lives in the home just to the north of the couple’s house, said he and his family were sleeping when there was a “very loud” explosion that broke glass in his home. “Everybody scrambled, thinking somebody was breaking in. We heard people next door screaming for help, then saw their roof on the ground. It was pretty traumatizing.”

Neighborhood resident Dave Conner came outside when he heard the explosion, and the house was already leveled. There was a smoldering fire that burned for about five minutes but then the wind picked up and the smoldering fire became an inferno, he said. That fire then spread to another house.

The house directly south of the flattened home had holes in the roof and blown-out windows, as did the building just north of it. The homes on either side of the home where the fire occurred are currently uninhabitable, according to Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford, who noted that the homes are brick and could be repaired though.

Neighbors said they smelled gas last night, and this morning the homeowner was apparently in the basement working on something when the explosion occurred.

Venegas said he kicked in the door of the home just to the south of the home that exploded and brought the elderly woman who lives there outside. That woman, who is 80 years old, refused medical attention, Langford said. Wheatley said he and his family were uninjured as well.

A dog that lived in the destroyed home had not been seen, said neighbors and rescuers.

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