BALTIMORE -- Two people are now confirmed dead following a natural gas explosion that destroyed three row houses in Baltimore and sent seven people to the hospital, authorities said Tuesday.
A man was pulled from the debris shortly before 1 a.m. Baltimore Fire Department spokeswoman Blair Adams said at a morning news conference.
Family members identified him as Joseph Graham, 20, a student at Morgan State University who had attended a party at one of the row homes that was destroyed.
Sunshine Evans told WMAR-TV that Graham, her nephew, was in the home with two other of her family members when the structure collapsed. They were rushed to the hospital, she said.
Isaac Graham, an uncle of Joseph Graham, had told The Baltimore Sun on Monday that his nephew attended a party with one of his best friends and decided to spend the night. He said his nephew was a “good kid” who was studying at Morgan State and recently launched his own clothing line.
Ty’lor Schnella, a friend of Graham’s, told the newspaper that he “was always the one that kept everyone uplifted, kept your spirits high.”
Friends were in disbelief over his death.
“Everyone was like, ‘Not Joseph.’ I would never think something like this could happen to him,” Schnella said.
Morgan State said in a statement that Graham was a rising sophomore pursuing an electrical engineering degree. The university said it mourns “the tragic loss of life as a result of this calamitous event and offer our deepest sympathies to the Graham family.”
Meanwhile, authorities have not identified a woman who was pronounced dead at the scene shortly after Monday morning’s explosion. Seven others were hospitalized, five in critical condition, said Adams, the fire department spokeswoman. The conditions of the other two were still being determined, she said.
More than 200 people in the neighborhood were affected by the blast, and about 30 have utilized temporary shelter since the explosion, she said.
The natural gas explosion leveled three row houses and ripped open a fourth, trapping people in the debris and scattering shards of glass and other rubble over the northwest Baltimore neighborhood of Reisterstown Station. Dozens of firefighters converged on the scene to free the injured.
“It’s a disaster. It’s a mess. It’s unbelievable,” said Diane Glover, who lives across the street. Her windows where shattered and her front door was blown open.
The exact cause remains unknown, and the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. appealed for patience as they investigate. No gas odors were reported before the explosion, and BGE did not receive any recent gas odor calls from the block of homes that were damaged, the utility said in a statement late Monday.
BGE also said it last inspected the area’s gas mains and services in June and July of 2019 and no leaks were found.
BGE said in a statement on Tuesday that it was providing information to the Baltimore Fire Department and other investigators regarding "the flows of gas and electricity on customer-owned equipment.”
The Baltimore Sun reported last year that dangerous gas leaks have become much more frequent, with nearly two dozen discovered each day on average, according to the utility’s reports to federal authorities. BGE has said it has thousands of miles of obsolete pipes that need to be replaced, an effort that would cost nearly $1 billion and take two decades, the newspaper said.
BGE asked the Maryland Public Service Commission to approve a new gas system infrastructure and a cost recovery mechanism in late 2017 to pay for upgrades.
“Founded in 1816, BGE is the oldest gas distribution company in the nation. Like many older gas systems, a larger portion of its gas main and services infrastructure consists of cast iron and bare steel – materials that are obsolete and susceptible to failure with age,” the PSC wrote in a 2018 order approving a modernization plan.
This area’s gas infrastructure was installed in the early 1960s. When aging pipes fail, they tend to make headlines. Last year, a gas explosion ripped the façade off a Maryland office complex in Columbia, affecting more than 20 businesses. No one was injured in the explosion early on a Sunday morning. In 2016, a gas main break forced the evacuation of the Baltimore County Circuit Courthouse. Under Armour Inc. had to evacuate its Baltimore office after a gas main break in 2012.
This story has been corrected to show that Joseph Graham was a rising sophomore at Morgan State University, not a rising junior.
Associated Press contributors include Mike Kunzelman in Silver Spring, Brian Witte in Annapolis, and Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia.