PRINCETON — An explosion in a split-level house Thursday morning killed its only resident and shook several neighboring homes.
Acting Fire Chief John Bennett, who was on vacation, was at home when he got the call just after 10:30 Thursday morning that there was a fire at 140 Ball Hill Road. He was the first to arrive a few minutes later.
“The explosion blew the whole front of the house out,” Bennett said. He said the home’s windows had blown out to the front and back yards, and the entire house was engulfed in flames.
Bennett said he made it to the front door, but the intense fire forced him back.
Authorities declined to release the name of the 61-year-old man who died, pending the results of an autopsy. But neighbors said Rick Conway had been living in the house that belonged to his mother, who recently moved to a nursing home. The house is owned by Daveeda A. Conway, according to town records.
Bennett said a woman who was passing by the house told him she heard the explosion and called 911 to report it.
Three additional alarms were immediately struck for manpower and water. Westminster, Holden, Hubbardston, and Sterling firefighters quickly arrived to assist Princeton firefighters.
Princeton has an on-call department. There are no hydrants in town, so the first firefighters had to break ice on a nearby pond before laying more than 2,000 feet of 5-inch hose, a process that took about 10 minutes, said Bennett. Rutland and Hubbardston companies brought their water tankers.
“We believe this was some sort of gas explosion,” Bennett said, but he made it clear it was very early in the investigation.
A car and a tractor trailer rig, which neighbors said belonged to Conway, were parked in the driveway as firefighters responded. Fire officials became worried that someone may have been at home at the time of the fire because the driveway had not been plowed.
Bennett ordered firefighter evacuations several times because of the intensity of the heat, and the floors in the front of the house were sagging and unstable. There were about 85 firefighters at the scene.
State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan said the exact cause of the explosion is still under investigation. He said the victim’s family had been notified.
“It’s a disaster,” said Greg Dowdy, a Ball Hill Road neighbor who shook his head and at times held back tears as he surveyed the wreckage.
“He was a tractor-trailer driver, and he was home only on the weekends,’’ he said. “He seemed to be a real nice guy.”
Another Ball Hill Road neighbor, Todd Smolenski, said he was clearing snow when he saw thick smoke. “Fire was coming out of every window,” Smolenski said.
The fire and smoke were fully extinguished by early afternoon, and the mood was somber. State fire investigators arrived and put up yellow tape to cordon off the area.
“What a shane,’’ said Cathy Clary, a Ball Hill Road neighbor who took pictures of the skeletal remains of the house.