A house exploded before dawn Thursday in South St. Paul, where emergency responders found one person dead amid the debris.
The multiple blasts and flames coming from the home in the 1200 block of 9th Avenue S. lit the dark sky a bright orange and sent grayish smoke skyward high enough to be captured on multiple traffic cameras along Interstate 494.
The explosions occurred at 6:18 a.m., the flames were quickly extinguished, and fire crews were still on the scene hours later, said South Metro Fire Chief Mark Juelfs.
Juelfs said firefighters went through the charred property searching for the victims inside the 1,000-square-foot residence, where 77-year-old Ester Richards lived with her adult son.
In an update shortly after 9:30 a.m., Juelfs said emergency personnel located one body and searched for others.
Identification of the body has yet to be confirmed, but Police Chief Brian Wicke said the victim is a male. Wicke said officials have made contact and confirmed that Richards was not at home at the time of the explosions.
Wicke said fire crews cleared the scene Thursday afternoon and do not believe there are other victims in the rubble. Officials have yet to disclose a preliminary cause for the explosions and fire.
Next-door neighbor Natalia Medina said she and others in her family of four were awakened by "a really big bang. It shook our house up. We heard a second and third explosion, and that's when we saw the flames coming up out of the house."
Medina said Richards requires use of a wheelchair. She said her 42-year-old son lived there as well.
"We saw him go into the home last night, but we're not sure if he had left or was still in there," she said, adding that the vehicles in the drive at the time of the explosion were routinely driven by the son.
Medina said she's grateful that the home where she, her husband and two children live suffered only some broken windows from the blasts. She said her shed out back "burned a little bit."
Mike Schuno, 67, lives across the street and was awake at the time of the blasts after letting his dog Pally out.
"I was doing something in the kitchen, and all of a sudden I heard a loud boom, and my whole house shook. In fact, a couple of glasses fell out of my cupboard and a couple of items fell off my counter," he said, noting that planes from the nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport frequently fly overhead. "And I thought, 'What the heck.' So I didn't know if a plane had crashed into one of these houses."
Schuno said he at first saw flames coming out of a window of the home, and soon the entire house was engulfed.
"I mean, it just went up so fast," he said. "And I was gonna call 911. But I could hear the fire engines and everything coming already. So I ran out here, and I wanted to run across the street. But there was no way you could even get near the house, because that's how fast the fire spread," he said. "... The firemen, I mean, they did a fantastic job. But I mean, there was no saving the house once they got here, because it was totally engulfed in flames."
Schuno said Richards and her son were friendly and always waved, and the son had a large garden out back.
"He grew the biggest tomatoes you ever seen, and he would always knock on my door. He says, 'Hey, buddy, you want some fresh veggies?' and I says, 'Who in their right mind wouldn't want some fresh veggies?' So he was a wonderful guy."
Janet Danielson has lived in her home across the street from the explosion for 62 years.
"I thought it was a garbage guy banging, I don't know," she said. "I did get up after about the third explosion. I'd say five or six big explosions, and the fire was so intense," said Danielson, who said the son took care of his mother and sometimes did odd jobs.
"The sad part is, you live in a neighborhood and you don't even know your neighbors' last names or anything. I don't know his last name, just that he's a nice guy. And they were a nice family.
"Terrible time of the year to lose family like that. Or anytime I should say."