Explosion rocks Swanton Village
Apartment tenant in critical condition
SWANTON VILLAGE –– A Swanton man is still in critical condition today following an unusual home explosion that occurred in the heart of the village here early Saturday morning.
Ralph Labelle, 46, was brought to Fletcher Allen Health Care with severe burns after his upper-level apartment burned in a four-alarm fire involving a blast that rattled surrounding homes.
Many village residents from two and three blocks away felt their doors and windows shake when a large, longstanding apartment building at 72 Canada St. exploded just before 8 a.m.
When Swanton firefighters arrived at the scene, the entire building was engulfed in flames. Except for Labelle, the six residents who occupied the four apartments were able to escape without injuries.
Fire departments from St. Albans, Highgate, and Georgia responded to help extinguish the blaze, as increasing winds carried cinders into the yards of nearby village residents – some who lived streets away.
The building is a total loss and its residents are displaced. Damage estimates exceed $200,000. Swanton resident Mike Lemnah owns the property.
The explosion caused the exterior walls of the upper-level apartments to blow out, and debris from the building hit nearby homes, according to Vermont State Police Det. Sgt. Jeremy Hill.
The cause of the explosion is still under investigation, but the fire is not suspicious. There was speculation over the weekend that the building exploded just as one of the tenants lit a cigarette, though police have not confirmed nor denied that information.
Throughout Saturday, curious village residents drove and walked to the cordoned and charred structure, which stands across from the Church of the Nativity Catholic Church.
“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” said Donna Lobdell, a Wilbraham, Mass., resident who was staying on Canada Street while visiting friends over the weekend.
Lobdell said she was taking a bite of her breakfast when she heard “a loud boom” and felt the doors and walls shake. She grabbed her camera and went outside.
“There was a bed outside on the ground,” Lobdell recalled today. “You could feel it (the explosion) in the house. It shook a little bit.”
Lobdell was outside before firefighters arrived. She said the residents that escaped were “standing there in awe,” while other people started arriving at the scene, wondering if children were inside. (There weren’t.)
Reportedly, one of the displaced tenants was Jim Branca, a well known Vermont musician and songwriter who also teaches music at the Soar Learning Center, an alternative school on St. Albans Bay. The chatter among Swanton residents Saturday was that Branca lost much of his musical gear and an extensive collection of music albums in the blaze.
The explosion on Saturday marked the second devastating fire in Swanton Village this year. In early March, flames swept through a red brick apartment building on Merchants Row owned by John and Jan Tessier.
During that seven-alarm inferno, which started at 6:15 p.m., onlookers stood across the street, in the village green, and watched as 80 firefighters knocked down the fire, which gutted one of Swanton’s most historic structures; it was built in 1815.
The scene conjured chilling memories for those who remembered the Jan. 28, 1970, fire that destroyed most of Merchants Row. Firefighters from 20 departments battled that blaze, which happened during biting cold and strong winds.