Columbus police officers rescue man and woman from house explosion
He was the first police officer to rush into the chaotic, rubble-strewn blast site in Columbus, Ohio — and among the first sounds he heard was a woman in pain, crying desperately for help, body camera footage shows.
Moments earlier, just after 8 a.m. on Friday, a vacant home in the city had exploded, Columbus police said. The explosion stripped windows and walls off nearby homes and duplexes, hurled debris for hundreds of feet and created a boom that could be heard and felt for miles, fire officials said.
Columbus Police Officer Gary Orahood was in the area on patrol that morning. When he made it to the home that had exploded and took in the devastation, Orahood quickly realized at least one female survivor was trapped in the rubble from her cries, video shows.
That’s when Orahood started climbing mounds of rubble to the location the cries were coming from. Once Orahood found her, he immediately began using the one tool he had — his bare hands — to clear wood, bricks, deformed pieces of metal and other remnants of the home, all of it piled on top of the woman.
Neighbors and others quickly joined the scene, frantically trying to help the woman, police said. Fires were still burning and smoke was still rising just feet from the woman as the rescue attempt unfolded.
“We’re trying. We’re trying,” officers assured the trapped woman as more responders arrived, video shows. “Don’t panic. We’ve got you.”
Another Columbus police officer — Joe Burkey — also arrived at the scene to help, the police department said.
Once the woman, Vernice Hill, was pulled from the rubble, Burkey tried to ease the woman’s pain and reassure her until medical help can arrive, video shows.
“You’ve made it this far,” Burkey said, patting her shoulder as cops and firefighters sifted through the damage, video shows. “You’re going to be alright.”
The video police released of Hill’s pained cries for help is muted at moments to “minimize the traumatizing effects it could have on her family and friends,” according to Columbus police.
After rescuing Hill, officers and neighbors who had pitched in began leaving the scene to clear the way for fire officials, video shows.
But then it became clear there was a second survivor.
“We’ve got another one,” someone can be heard saying in the video.
Officers ran over to the second survivor, video shows.
“Is it just you, buddy?” someone asks the second survivor in the video. “Is there anyone else?”
Firefigthers and people who appear to be neighbors gather to help.
“Stay away from the gas line,” someone can be heard saying in the video.
Both survivors of the blast — Hill and an unidentified man — were taken to the Ohio State University Medical Center. Their injuries were serious, police said.
Locals described feeling the blast for miles, and worrying about what it could possibly have been.
“I fell down on the floor. I didn't want everything to fall on me” Bonnie Evans told ABC 6, describing what she felt from a chapel not far from the scene. A loud, scary boom from the initial blast was followed by smoke, Evans said — but she didn’t see any fire.
Columbus fire officials told the TV station that both survivors had broken bones and burns from the blast.
The cause of the blast is still under investigation, authorities said. But fire officials told ABC 6 that it’s possible scrappers were stripping the vacant duplex for metal, and accidentally triggered a natural gas explosion.
The property was public housing, operated by the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority. Representatives for the agency told NBC 4 that — other than for about week leading up to the blast — the home has been occupied since 1986. The housing authority didn’t shut off the building’s gas while it was vacant because upgrades to the home were in the works.
“When we vacate a building we make certain that we secure the front and back doors,” Cheryl Thomas, Vice President of Asset Management for the housing authority, told the TV station, explaining that she wasn’t sure who managed to get inside. “And then we occasionally go by and see if there are individuals who aren't supposed to be in there.”
Police thanked the community for their help handling the chaotic incident.
“Thank you to everyone for pulling together to help,” Columbus police wrote in a Facebook post on June 22. “It was a tough day. Both victims remain in critical condition. Healing prayers for them and their families.”