Bob Eskew likened the loud booms he heard while working at his home computer to those of an F-16 fighter jet buzzing his neighborhood. Sipping his morning coffee a mile away, David Haley heard the same thing but thought one of the transformers on a nearby power pole had gone out again.

Both couldn’t be more wrong.

With a deafening concussion some say they heard miles from this typically quiet town of 5,800, an explosion about 7:30 a.m. Wednesday obliterated the home of one of Eskew’s neighbors, killing a well-liked, well-known widow and her 9-year-old grandson while severely burning two of her sons.

An 88-year-old woman from a home next door to the destroyed house was treated at a hospital for cuts, spared in the blast that left Haley - police chief of this Macoupin County seat about 60 miles northeast of St. Louis - shaking his head hours later, debris strewn all around him.

Just a couple of weeks earlier, he said, a powerful storm barreled through this place and region, tearing up power lines and roofs while toppling about a half-dozen trees onto cars around here.

The explosion’s wake, Haley lamented, was more difficult for him to digest.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” he said, standing near the remains of the house reduced to a crater filled with charred, splintered wood.

A bathtub was overturned inside the pit. Two blackened vehicles were nearby, the garage that sheltered one of them no longer there. Other debris ran the gamut insulation here, a frying pan there. A leg from a kitchen table. A sink.

Killed in the explosion were 55-year-old Margaret Hatlen, whose body was found in the basement of the destroyed home, and her 9-year-old grandson, Michael Albracht.

Hatlen’s death came a little more than a year after her husband operator of a local towing service Haley’s department relied on died of cancer, neighbors and Haley said.

Hatlen’s two sons, who weren’t immediately identified, were severely burned. They were flown to a Springfield hospital’s burn center about 55 miles away.

Though utility workers and the state fire marshal’s office still were working to pinpoint what caused the explosion, Haley said his department was treating it as a natural gas explosion because residents of the home detected the pungent smell of the fuel the previous night but didn’t call the utility. He did not specify how he knew the residents had smelled gas.

Shortly before the explosion, Haley said, others about a block from the scene said they smelled gas and were in the process of notifying the utility.

Haley didn’t see the explosion but felt it, thinking it was a neighborhood transformer until one of his dispatchers called him to report a 10-33, police code for an emergency.

“The tone in my dispatcher’s voice told me this wasn’t good,” Haley said.

A resident here for two decades, Haley scrambled to the scene within minutes, driving down an alley and seeing plumes of black smoke and flame before the house -or what was left of it - came into view. Some of the debris was found a quarter mile away.

Eskew, himself a former firefighter now working in the county jail, already had hustled outside after the blast rattled his home and shattered its front windows.

Eskew saw one of the victims stretched motionless, on fire, on the ground in a scene that almost looked apocalyptic.

“I came outside and saw a lot of fire, a lot of damage, a lot of smoke,” he said.

Kevin Walker came upon the scene about that time, eager to check on his nearby computer-and-Internet business after a friend told him by telephone of the explosion. Walker found flames shooting four stories into the air from what had been Hatlen’s house.

Inside his business, Walker said, he found computer parts knocked to the floor. The windows were blown out, and the back wall was separated from the ceiling and bowed outward.

Leigh Morris, a spokesman for St. Louis-based Ameren Corp., the supplier of natural gas and electrical service through its AmerenIP subsidiary, said the company had reviewed its records and received no reports of anyone calling about a suspected gas leak in the neighborhood.

He said Ameren would leave it up to state authorities to determine a final cause of the blast, but that utility employees were assisting in the investigation.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office is looking into the explosion in conjunction with local police and insurance investigators, said spokeswoman Patti Thompson. She said investigators had found nothing suspicious as of Wednesday evening.

All the while, Haley spent the day deftly accommodating the media that swarmed in from St. Louis and surrounding areas.

“We’ve done pretty good, and the media’s been great,” he said, noting that only a couple of times did police have to shoo reporters back behind the police tape. “If any of my folks were short, sorry, that’s life.”

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