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Gas Explosions, Fires Rip Area Near Chicago’s Loop

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Natural gas explosions rocked eight square blocks of homes and factories near Chicago’s Loop on Friday, triggering 18 fires, blanketing the central city in a thick, smoky haze and leaving hundreds temporarily homeless on a bitterly cold night.

One person was killed, two others were reported missing and five were injured, one critically, authorities said. Witnesses described the scene as like a war zone.

A spokesmen for Peoples Gas Co. blamed the problem on a faulty low pressure regulator valve in a natural gas line that serves the area. When the valve failed, it apparently created a sudden burst of gas pressure that overwhelmed furnaces, hot water heaters and gas stoves.

“We got gas surges out of our fires and grills,” said Dan Malagoli, who was working in a delicatessen in the gentrifying neighborhood straddling the Kennedy Expressway just northwest of downtown. “The flame coming out of what would have been a pilot light was instead like a torch. I turned off the gas and took off.”

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The delicatessen was spared but other structures were not. Several witnesses said they heard “swooshing” noises and noticed heaters and other gas appliances start to shudder before they heard the first blasts.

A body was recovered Friday night from the rubble of a collapsed building, said Fire Department spokesman Earl Larsen. He said two other people were missing. Three firefighters were among the injured.

Johnny Raldan, 22, was with a friend in his second floor apartment on Racine Avenue when he suddenly heard what he thought was a staticky, hissing noise coming from the radio in the living room.

“I came out and noticed the space heater was throwing out all this gas,” Raldan said. “All of a sudden . . . the building next door blew up. The other building isn’t even standing. Everything turned black and I ran out. I’m sure my cat is dead.”

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David Levy was in his video store when he heard a “massive double explosion” outside that knocked the tapes off his display racks. He looked out and saw flames lapping over a house two doors away from the store. “It was an inferno,” he said. “The flames were so high you could see them over the second floor of the building right in front of mine.”

Chicago Fire Commissioner Raymond Orozco said there were at least 10 separate blasts, causing fires that eventually consumed all or parts of 18 buildings. Some were leveled.

The explosions occurred shortly before the start of the afternoon rush hour, creating a nightmare for tens of thousands of commuters as they found their route home clogged by emergency vehicles.

As fire crews battled the blazes, utility workers cut off gas to the area. That meant that homes that escaped damage would still be without heat on a blustery night when temperatures were expected to plunge to around zero.

Phillip Gutierrez, a Red Cross official, said his agency had set up a temporary shelter to house more than 100 people and city officials were coordinating the establishment of other shelters.

Gutierrez said police and gas company workers were going door-to-door in a square-mile area around the disaster scene asking residents to leave their homes until gas service could be restored.


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