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Leaking underground propane tank found at Virginia home before deadly house explosion

First responders arrive at the scene after an explosion at a house late Friday in Sterling, Va.
Nicki Jhabvala
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Nicki Jhabvala/The Washington Post via AP
First responders arrive at the scene after an explosion at a house late Friday in Sterling, Va.

Updated February 17, 2024 at 12:26 PM ET

STERLING, Va. — When firefighters arrived at a home in a Washington, D.C., suburb to investigate a report about a gas smell Friday night, they discovered a 500-gallon underground propane tank with a leak on the side of the residence.

A short time later, the house exploded and burst into flames, with multiple mayday calls coming from the firefighters trapped inside. Crews rushed in to try to rescue them from the debris that covered them, but one firefighter was killed and nine others were injured, Loudoun County Fire and Rescue officials said in a news release.

The origin and cause of the explosion is under investigation. Authorities did not say if they believe the propane tank leak caused the explosion.

James Williams, assistant chief of operations, said the firefighters' injuries range from limited to severe. Two other people were also injured and treated at hospitals for injuries that were not life-threatening.

Williams described damage to the home in Sterling as "total devastation."

"There's a debris field well into the street and into the neighboring homes," he said Friday during a news conference.

Sterling is located about 22 miles (35 kilometers) northwest of Washington, D.C.

In a news release Saturday, Loudoun County Fire and Rescue said the emergency communications center received a 911 call reporting a gas odor shortly after 7:30 p.m. Friday. After firefighters found the leak in the underground propane tank, they requested a hazardous materials response team and additional units and safety officers. The house exploded a short time later.

"It looked like an inferno," neighbor says

A neighbor, John Padgett, told ABC7 News that he had smelled gas while walking his dog earlier.

The blast shook his home, he said.

"It looked like an inferno," and insulation from the burning home fell like ash, he added. "It was horrific; it looked like something out of a war zone."

Washington Gas issued a statement on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, saying it has company representatives on the scene and is assisting Loudoun County fire officials and other authorities in the investigation.

"We are verifying the integrity of our system in the surrounding area," the company said. "Our hearts go out to those who were injured and to the Loudoun County Fire department for the loss of one of their own."

The Loudoun County Fire and Rescue Fire Marshal's Office was also on the scene Saturday and is investigating the origin and cause of the explosion.

"This is believed to be an isolated incident and there is no ongoing danger to the community," Loudoun County Fire and Rescue said in a statement.

The body of the firefighter who died was taken to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to determine the cause and manner of death.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]