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Fairport Explosions Force Thousands Out

Of the refugees scattered around tables in the cafeteria at Painesville's Harvey High School, Laura Lawrence counts herself among the lucky.

She didn't lose her home when explosions and fires erupted in more than a dozen houses, on different blocks, in neighboring sections of the picturesque Lakeside town of 32-hundred.

But she didn't miss being among those victims by much.

"...That's what we woke up to this morning, was three different fire departments and the building full of smoke."

The smoke was actually from a neighbor's home, as fires were inexplicably breaking out all over town - some in furnaces, while others were springing up virtually anywhere gas lines are found.

Officials from the Public Utilities Commission would later say it was apparently an over pressurized line ....forcing gas into spaces where it normally would not go.

As the problem grew, and with no known cause at the time, Dominion East Ohio and Village safety forces opted for a large scale evacuation... for the resident's safety.

Lawrence says what she saw when she left - will stay with her for years.

"Both ends of my street were blocked off by the Fire Department. It just looked like a scene from a war movie... Helicopters hovering overhead, smoke, billowing smoke; my throat is still sore from that . (RICK - HOW CLOSE TO YOUR HOUSE WAS IT?).... Right in my back yard there was a house, on the corner of my block there was a house, and then on the opposite end from my corner there was also another house involved.

On the other end of town, alongside Lake Erie, Mayor Frank Sarosy raced to answer his cell phone, sensing that a pre-7 AM call would not be pleasant news... But entering his own living room ...stopped him short.

"We have a gas fireplace, and it was shut off... The fireplace, because of the backup, was actually on full power, that's how much of a force it was. And I wondered at that time, geez, what's going on? Why is the fireplace...? And it was really humming pretty loud."}

On a street nowhere near the mayor's house OR Laura Lawrence's, Karen Langford was having her own morning battle with what she first thought was -- just a cranky stove.

"I smelled the gas leak... it smelled pretty bad, like really bad, so I went in the kitchen and I lifted up and saw one of my I pilot lights was out ... so I re-lit the pilot light and turned the gas stove on and flames shot up like really high, and I thought Oh! this isn't good - This isn't good."

She called for help, but her fiancé couldn't get the line loose... to staunch the flow of gas.... And the smell was growing overpowering.

"and then I had a neighbor come over, saying they're evacuating.. So I hurried up and grabbed whatever I had."

Senior Citizen Mary Gable says she ignored the first warning she got that something was wrong.

Also grabbing up the necessities was senior citizen Mary Gable. who had already heard the first 'mechanical' warnings,,,,

"My smoke detector went off three times... it just binged like a couple of few times and went off, I didn't pay any attention to it."

Mary says there was no problem in her house, but suspects the smoke alarm was detecting smoke from outside.

But she had ignored it when she found no problem in 'her' apartment.
What the sensor was alerting Mary about was apparently the smoke wafting over the town from up to 18 separate fires.

Then she got the word from family AND friends. Get out.

"I just immediately got up and took medications, put em in a bag, and then my neighbor came to me and said let's get out of here cause we're being evacuated. And so that's what I did."

By this time Mayor Sarosy was into crisis mode to handle the unraveling situation... Fairport Harbor put out the call for aid.
More than 20 fire departments from Lake and neighboring counties answered those fire calls - which were not only scattered, but still erupting through the morning. A home on Fifth Street was engulfed in flame at noon - more than five hours after houses several blocks east of there had caught fire.

And as the day went on, Mayor Sarosy had other concerns.

"Our next fear is; because of the cold, we're worried with all the power shut off, that we're going to have water main breaks, and people aren't thinking of that. So this isn't over, once we put the fires out and figure out the problem with gas... "

In all, about 15-hundred homes were evacuated. The mayor says 61 people from the gas company are going house to house today, before turning gas back on. But some people may end up staying either at Harvey high School or area hotels.
Dominion East Ohio says its will be helping to foot the bill for that.

Mayor Sarosy praised the county and his neighboring towns for this example of mutual aid, which he partly credits for why there were no injuries involved, in any of the blasts.

The investigation by several agencies continues.
Rick Jackson, 90.3.

Rick Jackson is a senior host and producer at Ideastream Public Media. He hosts the "Sound of Ideas" on WKSU and "NewsDepth" on WVIZ.