FORT WAYNE – Jason Baugher was having coffee on his porch late Saturday morning when the booming sound of a violent blast ripped through his north-side neighborhood.
You could just feel it rattle your chest, he said.
Immediately, he dashed barefoot toward the sound. A few lots down, across an alley, smoke was rising.
On the northwest corner of Sallie and Bayer avenues, the two-story house that once stood at 1701 Bayer was now rubble. The back door had been launched 50 feet. The front door had landed across the street. The south wall was blown out and resting against a utility pole. Broken glass littered the street and sidewalk.
Baugher could hear screaming: Help me! Help me!
Where are you?! Where are you?! Baugher called.
Another man and a woman, a retired firefighter who lives nearby, worked with Baugher to find the source of the voice. Eventually, they saw movement through the smoke.
A soot-covered young man was on his feet in a part of the house that had not completely collapsed. On his own, he managed to maneuver his way out of the wreckage.
Baugher, 36, and the other two good Samaritans helped him over a fence to safety before flames got a hold of the house.
The fire really took off, Baugher said. It got crazy.
The man who survived the explosion was taken to a hospital in critical condition. He was the only person in the house at the time, authorities said. Learning that put Baugher at ease because his cousin by marriage, China White, also lived in the rental house. White said it was her roommate, 21-year-old Caleb Hoffman, who emerged from the debris.
I really hope he pulls through, Baugher said. It kind of looks like somebody was looking out for him.
Assistant Chief Adam OConnor of the Fort Wayne Fire Department said the cause of the blast has not been determined. OConnor said the possibility of a natural gas explosion is being investigated along with all other possible scenarios. Its not necessarily a slam dunk that it was a gas leak, he said.
NIPSCO spokesman Larry Graham said the natural gas company is also investigating the cause of the explosion. Graham said NIPSCO workers found no gas leaks or signs of gas in the area surrounding the house, but whether there was a leak in the house remains under investigation.
Multiple people called 911 after the blast, and firefighters were dispatched at 11:56 a.m., arriving at the scene a minute later, the fire department said. By then, Hoffman had already escaped the rubble.
OConnor said firefighters shut off the gas line and hosed down the blaze. The flames melted the siding of the house next door, but the fire did not spread. Excavation equipment was used to remove debris as lingering flames were extinguished, fire officials said.
On Saturday afternoon, White and her other roommate, Justine Jost, went to St. Joseph Hospital to visit Hoffman, but they were not able to see him. White said he was sedated in the hospitals burn unit.
They said 70 percent of his body has burns, White, 21, said.
Jost, also 21, said Hoffman went to Concordia High School and has plans to start classes at Indiana University in August. He was working construction this summer, she said.
As Jost and White stood in the street looking at the remains of their home, their roommate was foremost in their thoughts.
Hes alive, Jost said. Thats all that matters.