By Jenn Bernstein and Cleve Bryan
LOWER TOWNSHIP, NJ (CBS) —The Cape May County fire marshal has confirmed that a gas leak was the cause of a house explosion in Lower Township yesterday.
Investigators from Lower Township, Cape May County, and the State of New Jersey were still sorting through what’s left of the home on East Atlantic Avenue.
Two people were inside at the time.
The couple, who were identified by neighbors and local leaders as Jim and Evelyn McCarty, remained at Crozier Chester Medical Center. Both were listed in critical but stable condition Friday night.
Lower Township mayor Mike Beck, who lives nearby, heard the Thursday afternoon blast.
“It was a huge explosion,” Mayor Beck recalled. “As I looked out the window I could see smoke starting to come up and people running in this direction.”
Beck ran toward the explosion and says the community acted fast (see previous story).
“There were people already trying to pick through the rubble; there were people at the back, people at the front, people coming over the fences trying to get in and help,” said Mayor Beck. “There were people going up and down the street, warning other neighbors to get out of here — evacuate.”
Beck said brave neighbors overlooked their own safety and pulled the McCartys out of the home.
“I’m very proud of the people,” Beck said.
CBS 3’s Cleve Bryan spoke exclusively with an off-duty police officer that helped pull one half of the couple from the rubble.
“I had never seen anything like it before,” Lower Township police officer Corey Scheid said.
Scheid heard a bang and felt his house shake Thursday afternoon. He immediately cut through a neighbor’s yard and found this — a house blown to pieces.
“I noticed a female inside the residence waving for help,” he said.
Authorities say 67 year-old Evelyn McCarty was on her couch and husband was in the bathroom when the explosion happened. Both became trapped in the rubble of their home.
“We ran up on to the roof, with the help of my neighbor we were able to lift the roof off and I pulled her out of the residence,” Scheid said.
More neighbors also came to the rescue and pulled out Jim McCarty before flamed engulfed the fallen house.
Bernie Garretson, the sister of Evelyn McCarty, did not want to be interviewed but told Eyewitness News that the McCartys are both 67 years old and from the Roxborough section of Philadelphia, but they retired to the Villas section of Lower Township about a decade ago.
The couple has four daughters and have been married for more than 40 years.
Evelyn has two broken legs and Jim has third-degree burns on 15 percent of his body from the explosion, Garretson confirmed. Both are on ventilators.
Police chief Will Mastriana says the explosion investigation will continue through tomorrow and he plans to honor the Good Samaritans who rescued the couple at the next town hall meeting.
Mastriana also says that if the McCartys hadn’t been rescued, it’s safe to say they would have perished in the fire that followed the explosion.
Investigators spent nearly all day Friday sorting through the debris and now feel certain that the explosion started from some kind of gas leak. The house was in the process of switching from propane to natural gas.
“Some of the appliances were using propane, some were using natural gas. It is evident that one of those was the source of the explosion, we have to then determine the ignition source for that gas,” Cape May County Fire Marshal Conrad Johnson said.
“I think they had an angel. I really do. It was something else. I’ve never seen anything else like that,” Scheid said.
The county fire marshal says as of right now they are done sifting through the debris. They say that they have located the spot where the explosion started, under the kitchen, but they don’t know what caused it to set off.