Explosion destroys at least two center city homes, sets six on fire, more than 600 people evacuated.

Five people - including a 4-month-old boy - have died in Allentown's massive gas explosion and fire, authorities confirmed at a Thursday afternoon news conference. Search crews have located four of the five victims and the recovery operation continues. Lehigh County Coroner Scott Grim declined to identify the dead whose bodies have been recovered, describing them only as a 79-year-old man, a 69-year-old woman, a 16-year-old girl and a 4-month old baby. Grim said search dogs were being used to find the fifth victim.

Family members and friends earlier confirmed the dead as: William Hall, 79, and his wife, Beatrice, 74, of 544 N. 13th St.; and Ofelia Ben, 69, Catherine Cruz, 16, and Matthew Manuel Cruz, 4 months, of 542 N. 13th St. About a dozen people were injured and more than 350 were forced to evacuate from surrounding blocks and the Gross Towers seniors apartment complex when an apparent gas leak ignited at 544 N. 13th St. about 10:45 p.m. Wednesday.

"I would like to extend our deepest sympathies to those who lost loved ones," Mayor Ed Pawlowski said at the afternoon news conference, adding that the city and social service agencies are ready to help "day and night." The mayor said two properties were leveled by the blast and six more have to be razed, and a total of 47 properties, including 10 businesses, were damaged.

The mayor said what the victims need most "is dollars," and urged those who want to help to call the American Red Cross of the Greater Lehigh Valley. About 70 people were likely to be displaced long-term. All residents of Gross Towers have returned to their homes. At a news conference Thursday morning, Allentown fire Chief Robert Scheirer said no reports of gas odors preceded the explosion. UGI officials said they are still investigating, but said a crew earlier in the week detected no leaks in the area during a routine inspection.

"I think we are going under the assumption that it is a gas explosion, but it has not been confirmed to be the case," Joseph Swope, a company spokesman said earlier. Swope said the 12-inch low pressure main involved in the incident had no leak history. The utility used foam to seal the gas main on both ends of a one-block area at about 3:45 a.m. Thursday. Swope said it took crews some time to cut through reinforced concrete underneath the pavement.

Stunned neighbors groped for words to describe the explosion, which could be heard for miles. Antonio Arroyo, who lost his house at 530 N. 13th St. to the ensuing fire, said he was sure a bomb had gone off. "I thought it was bringing the war to our doorsteps," said Arroyo, who was checking his e-mail when the force of the explosion blasted his computer into him and knocked him to the floor. All the windows in his home blew out and his front door was pushed in.

Arroyo sobbed Thursday morning and hugged his wife, Jill, as he described watching for hours as the flames consumed his house. He didn't want to leave until the fire was out. "I'd rather accept what just happened rather than hear from someone that you just lost everything," he said. Arroyo's neighbor at 521 N. 13th St., Ernesto Santiago, was afraid to look outside after hearing the blast. He motioned upward with his hands and made a whooshing noise. "Down the street, it was all red flames," he said. "You could hear people screaming. It was awful."

An official from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said the explosion is under state authority, so the investigation is being handled by the state Public Utility Commission. Staff from the eastern district office of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency are at the site, said Ruth Miller, the agency's deputy press secretary. As of 10:45 a.m., city officials had not asked for PEMA assistance. There was also no word on whether there would be an official disaster declaration. Miller said that would depend on the extent of damage and the number of people affected. She said the agency would be monitoring the situation.

The blast blew out windows in many homes and businesses surrounding the blast area. Crews on scene called for the Lehigh County coroner at 4:45 a.m., according to police radio reports. Shortly after UGI turned off the gas, smoke began to clear and rescue workers could begin sifting through the debris. "We've found something," a firefighter radioed.

Allentown residents awoke Thursday to the acrid odor of smoke that blanketed much of center city. Fire crews worked all night in sub-freezing temperatures to tame the blaze and UGI workers scrambled to dig three holes in the ground and cut off gas flow to the area. The gas leak was under control by 4:30 a.m. and crews began returning residents to portions of the towers. Jason Soke, who lives at 16th and Tilghman streets, said that as soon as he heard the blast, he ran to the scene. "I was stunned," he said. "There were bricks everywhere. It blew pieces of the house across the street. I thought, holy cow!"

The smoke from the fire drifted east and inundated the block between 12th and 13th streets. Donald O'Shall of 536 13th St. said he was in his dining room when there was an explosion and he was hit by a door frame. He went outside into the street, saw the burning building and "at least one person on the second floor was on fire," he said. The blast broke nearby glass-enclosed porches and downed dozens of power lines, leaving about 150 area residents without power as of 2:30 a.m., according to PPL Electric Utilities. "I thought I was back in Vietnam," said Leonard Hein of 1231 Allen St., who joined hundreds of people in the streets taking pictures and calling friends. "It sounded like a 122mm rocket."

At least five Lehigh and Northampton Transportation Authority buses took senior residents from the eight-story west and 12-story east buildings of the Gross Towers, according to police reports. Buses were stacked up in the 600 block of 14th Street. About 200 people were evacuated to the Agri-Plex at the Allentown Fairgrounds, but there were only tables and chairs - no beds. Five busloads of dazed and bleary-eyed evacuees began arriving about 12:30 a.m. The American Red Cross of the Greater Lehigh Valley also responded. Displaced people at the Agri-Plex were given hot beverages and snacks, said Janice Osborne, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross. Vicky Kistler, director of the Allentown Health Bureau, was there along with nurses to tend to any needs of the Gross Towers residents, Osborne said.

Residents from as far as Bethlehem reported feeling the ground shake. "I was laying down and I heard the boom," said Lorraine McCallum of 1227 Allen St. "It shook my house." Several victims drove themselves to local hospitals, others were taken by ambulance. All but one had been treated and released, and the remaining victim at Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest may be discharged Thursday, officials said.

In 1994, Gross Towers was at the epicenter of another huge explosion in Allentown. An excavation crew bent a natural gas line leading to the complex on May 23, 1994, while removing a buried heating oil tank. The company left the pipe uncovered and unsupported until damaging it again June 9. That night, a gap in the gas line caused gas to flow into Gross Towers, triggering two explosions and a fire at the apartment building for the elderly. The accident killed one person and injured more than 60 others. The cause of Wednesday's explosion is not yet known.

Two Allentown schools were closed Thursday. Luis A. Ramos Elementary School at 1430 W. Allen Street and the IBEAM Academy, the former Jackson Elementary School, at 517 N. 15th St. were closed.