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Just before midnight Friday, March 21, Lancaster County Fire Marshal Stephen Blackwelder received a text message from Heath Springs Volunteer Fire Department Chief Patrick Helms.
“Patrick wanted to know if we just had an earthquake because something shook the ground and knocked a picture off the wall,” Blackwelder said.
Within minutes, the county’s 911 communications system was bombarded by nervous homeowners who thought the same, or that perhaps the noise came from a plane crash or tornado.
Gail Williams and Jock Williams knew exactly where the earth-jarring sound originated; the house belonging their neighbors on Cane Mill Road in the Elgin community had just exploded into a fireball.
“When it went off, we thought it was an atomic bomb,” Gail Williams said, as she stood with her husband on a nearby knoll just after 8 a.m. Saturday, March 22, watching firefighters and investigators sift through mangled metal, splintered boards and crushed bricks for clues.
“Everything points to natural gas, but we have to determine what led to it,” Blackwelder said. “We talked to all the neighbors to see if they noticed a faint gas odor or anything like that. Nobody indicated that anything was out of the ordinary.”
No one was home and Blackwelder said right now, authorities are not ready to identify them.
“From what we understand, they were on their way to the mountains, but had not reached their destination when they were turned around,” he said.
“We are very fortunate that no one was there, When you look at the damage, it’s a miracle that no one – not a neighbor or single firefighter – was injured. Given the circumstances, it could have been much worse,” he said.
The brick home was totally flattened by the explosion, almost as it a bomb was dropped on it. The explosion was felt as far away in Kershaw and there were reports that it activated car alarms as far away as Grace Avenue and Memorial Park Road.
A portion of the roof was across the street in the neighbor’s yard and wads of pink insulation stretched a field of debris past the railroad tracks on Kershaw Camden Highway. Insulation and clothes hung in hardwood trees more than 70 feet in the air. Neighboring homes had broken windows, doors and light fixtures, as well as other cosmetic damage.
Blackwelder said volunteer firefighters from Antioch, Elgin, Gooches Crossroads, McDonald Green and Rich Hill responded to the scene, along with members of the Lancaster County Fire Service. Some were still there about noon Saturday, some 12 hours later.
Gail Williams said she and her husband were watching The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon when the explosion rattled their home. She figures it was about midnight.
“I thought it was the end of time,” Gail Williams said. “We had to go across the road because the heat was so intense. How it could do something like that, that fast, I just don’t know.”
Jock Williams said the ground-shaking percussion and fireball shattered several light fixtures, damaged windows and knocked mounted wall items into the floor of their home.
“I was stationed in Oklahoma in the military and a house the exploded from a gas leak, but it just took the side off. It was nothing like this,” he said.
“The nearest thing I can compare it to is having 10 – no 100 – lighting strikes in the same place at the same time. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Blackwelder said SLED investigators were at the scene Saturday morning.
“We’ll will be able to tell you more as the investigation progresses,” he said.
Contact copy editor Greg Summers at (803) 283-1156