CAPITOL HEIGHTS

Gas Line Tampering Probed In Explosion of Vacant House

This house at 909 Nova Ave. in Capitol Heights exploded about 8:45 a.m., soon after the owner arrived to do renovation work. He narrowly escaped injury. Neighbors' homes were damaged.
This house at 909 Nova Ave. in Capitol Heights exploded about 8:45 a.m., soon after the owner arrived to do renovation work. He narrowly escaped injury. Neighbors' homes were damaged. (Photos By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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By Fredrick Kunkle and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 14, 2006

An explosion demolished a vacant house in Capitol Heights early yesterday, triggering an investigation by Prince George's County fire officials into whether someone tampered with the property's natural gas supply to restore service the utility shut off.

The blast started a small fire; severed live power lines, which snaked and snapped across the ground as firetrucks arrived; and reduced the one-story house on Nova Avenue to a jumble of planks. Clumps of roof shingles dangled from tall oak trees and littered the roofs of other homes. The windows of a few neighboring homes were shattered, but no one was injured.

Owner Jamal Raju, who was working on the house, said that shortly after he arrived, he smelled gas, ran out and alerted Washington Gas. Then, the house blew. He narrowly escaped injury when he returned to the house to check on something before the utility arrived. He had just opened the front door when the house exploded.

"It sounded like lightning -- just one bang," said Raju, 40, a Takoma Park resident who drives a taxi in the District.

Raju was not even thrown to the ground. Hours later, though, his legs were still shaky, he said. "I'm trying to get my nerves back," he said.

Mark Brady, a spokesman for the Prince George's Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, said investigators found evidence that someone had jury-rigged the pipes to supply the property with natural gas. Washington Gas shut off the service in May.

Raju, who said he was in the process of selling the renovated house, said he did not do any work on the gas lines. He said he was under the impression that the home had no gas service.

"We didn't touch the gas line. We didn't touch anything," he said.

The explosion occurred about 8:45 a.m. at 909 Nova Ave., about 15 minutes after the owner arrived, Brady said.

"It was a big boom and rumble, and it shook the whole house," said Walter Hartwell, 74, who lives three doors down. He said the blast knocked pictures off his walls.

Marilyn Cooke, 67, a nurse who lives two houses away, said the blast broke a window and shook everything from her kitchen cabinets onto the floor.

"That thing had a concussion on it," said her husband, Lawrence Cooke, 59.


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