Stunned residents told of their horror yesterday as a massive explosion ripped through a street, killing a toddler and leaving a father of six fighting for life. Little Jamie Heaton, two, died as the suspected gas blast demolished two terraced homes and severely damaged three others.

And last night detectives were treating his death as "suspicious" as they probed a theory that the explosion may have been caused deliberately. Jamie was the youngest of three children who lived with parents Michelle and Kenny next door to where police suspect the blast happened.

Neighbour Anthony Partington, 27, was airlifted to hospital, where he was said to be critically ill with 20% burns. He is believed to have been at home with the youngest of his six children when disaster struck at 11.15am.

His end-of-terrace stone house is thought to have been the source of the blast, which came just minutes after locals reported a strong smell of gas.

Mr Partington and his partner, Tanya Williamson, 26, moved in to the property about six weeks ago.

But friends say he was left distraught a few days ago when she left with five of the children after a series of rows.

Hundreds of surrounding homes were evacuated in the wake of the explosion that devastated the street in Shaw, near Oldham.

Some people were hurled from their beds by the force of the blast and homes in the neighbouring roads had their windows and doors blown out.

Gareth Walker, 25, who owns the Brew and Chew cafe on the corner of the street, said: "I was serving customers when there was this huge explosion.

"I thought it was a bomb, I thought someone was attacking us.

"The impact shook pictures and menu boards off the walls and the windows were ripped out.

"Everyone screamed - it was so loud it hurt my ears. I heard the alarms going off as I ran outside and saw a massive smoke cloud in the street.

"I have never been so scared in my life. There was nothing left of some of the houses.

"There was rubble strewn everywhere. Everyone was just screaming, it was chaos.

"I'm in shock, I'm still shaking. It was like something out of a movie. I see things like this on the news, you never expect it to happen on your doorstep."

Jessica Bromley, 18, was asleep in her bedroom overlooking the explosion when the window was ­shattered.

She said: "I looked outside and everything was flattened.

"I thought someone had dropped a bomb on us. I was screaming."

Jackie Hunter, 62, who lives opposite, said: "I was sitting with my dogs on the settee when all of a sudden it was as if the house had been lifted up.

Mrs Hunter added: "I saw a policewoman go into one of the houses and pull a little kiddie out. She looked really shocked."

Some terrified residents fled their homes in just bare feet or socks.

Dean Jackson, 39, who lives in the next street, said: "There were roof joists and everything in the road. It was like something out of a disaster movie.

"All the houses in the street had their windows blown in."

Waqar Iltaf, 23, was a few hundred yards away, leaving a hairdressers, when the explosion knocked him off his feet.

He said: "It was like there had beenan earthquake - as if the world was going to end."

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