Shaken in Haddon Heights

An explosion and fire destroyed an apartment house at White Horse Pike and Green Street in Haddon Heights and shook borough homes and ground for miles.
An explosion and fire destroyed an apartment house at White Horse Pike and Green Street in Haddon Heights and shook borough homes and ground for miles. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)

A blast, then a blaze

Posted: February 25, 2013

Steve Tyszka was at home Saturday afternoon in Mount Ephraim when his entire house shook.

His girlfriend typed a status on Facebook: "Wow, what was that?" A firefighter friend answered her: An apartment building had exploded at 101 White Horse Pike in nearby Haddon Heights.

Tyszka started his car. That, he said, was where his daughter Emily lived.

He called her on the mile-long drive to the building and learned she was out with her boyfriend, far away from White Horse Pike - but for an excruciating two minutes, he said, "I didn't know what to think."

The two met at the scene. The street was crawling with fire, police, and EMT crews. The building was engulfed in flames, black smoke billowing above the trees. The entire second and third floors were gone. The first floor was simply a shell, windows and doors blown out and debris piled inside.

Emily's "pretty upset, pretty shaken up. What she's wearing - that's all she's got," Tyszka said. "But other than that, she's OK."

Emily Tyszka got lucky Saturday afternoon - she and the four other residents of her building survived the dramatic blast and raging fire that shook the ground for miles and destroyed most of the three-story house.

Two of the residents were injured and taken to hospitals. They were not identified.

All residents were accounted for Saturday night, officials said. But the fire debris must be searched before officials can know for sure that there are no fatalities, Haddon Heights Police Capt. Michael Valvardi said.

Officials do not yet know what caused the explosion, Haddon Heights Mayor Edward S. Forte Jr. said.

"It looks like the third floor just blew off the house," said Haddon Heights Borough Councilman Steve Berryhill, who lives next door. He and his family were at home when, his daughter Melissa Carpenter said, "the whole house shook."

"I went downstairs and everyone was screaming. Most of the house had collapsed," said Carpenter, 20.

Berryhill rushed outside. A woman had been blown out of the third floor by the explosion, he said, and onto the roof of the porch.

"She was in shock and cut up," Berryhill said. He and his family helped the woman get down from the porch roof and called 911.

Forte, a volunteer firefighter for more than 30 years, said Saturday's fire was the worst he had seen.

"We have never had anything this extensive, a whole house exploding and the debris and the damage that's here," he said. No firefighters were injured, he said, praising the fire department's training and the assistance from other departments.

Throughout the borough, residents reported a strong explosion that shook their homes and the ground miles away from the fire, which engulfed the area in thick black smoke. Police shut down portions of White Horse Pike on Saturday evening as firefighters continued to extinguish hot spots in the rubble.

The building, at the intersection of Green Street and White Horse Pike, was up to code, Forte said.

The building's owner was on the scene, and authorities said he was cooperating with them. He did not speak to reporters. Property records list the owners as Michael Grace and Karen Harkaway, both of Moorestown.

The explosion occurred between 3:30 and 3:40 p.m., Berryhill said, and no fire was visible until about 15 minutes later. Dispatchers received the first phone call about 4 p.m., Forte said.

"It was so loud - we thought a tree had fallen on the house," said Rebecca Pyle, 22, who lives 10 blocks from the site and walked there after hearing the blast. "It was like something had fallen out of the sky."

A woman who was injured in the fire was taken to Cooper University Hospital in Camden. The other resident was taken to Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden. Their injuries were not life-threatening, officials said.

Sixty-five firefighters from nine fire companies responded to the fire, along with search-and-rescue teams from Cherry Hill and Camden.


Contact Jonathan Lai at 215-854- 2771 or jlai@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @elaijuh.

Inquirer staff writers Joseph Gambardello and April Saul contributed to this article.

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