ST. PAUL, Minn. — A natural-gas explosion blasted a car across a street, reduced two buildings to charred rubble and sent smoke billowing high into the air Thursday. The car's driver and another person died.
Seven other people were hospitalized after the blast shattered windows of nearby homes in the working-class neighborhood on the eastern edge of downtown. Two of those hospitalized were in critical condition Thursday night.
James H. Willson, a Northern States Power Co. official, said a city sewer maintenance crew may have struck the gas line with a backhoe, but the city's public works director, Tom Eggum, said he could not confirm that.
A two-story building housing a grocery store, bookstore and upstairs apartments was destroyed by the blast and fire. Throughout the day, firefighters battled a blaze in a neighboring building that housed a bar and more apartments.
Aaron Johnson, a city parks and recreation worker, was sitting in his truck when "the whole place blew up. It's like, all the people were there, and they're gone. The building was gone."
Regina Larson said she was feeding her 4-year-old son breakfast a half block away when she heard a boom and glass shattered in her kitchen. She ran outside, saw the grocery store on fire and a hand moving feebly from beneath the rubble.
"I just started screaming, 'There's a man's hand!' " she said.
Fire Chief Timothy Fuller said rescue crews were searching the rubble and all known residents and employees of the affected homes and businesses were accounted for.
Johnson said the motorist's car was in the intersection when the explosion hit. The black Chevrolet Caprice landed at the edge of an empty, sandy lot catty-corner from the blast. Its roof was torn off and a chunk of debris rested on the trunk.
The driver was identified as Gordon James Raths, 78, of St. Paul. His 77-year-old wife Gertrude, a passenger, was hospitalized in fair condition.
The other fatality was Donna Guthrie, 36, of St. Paul. She died at a hospital after being burned over 95% of her body.