A WOMAN was rescued from the rubble of a house which was destroyed in a suspected gas explosion in Cheltenham last night (Thursday).
The elderly resident of the house - named locally as Betty Hodgkiss, 81, - was buried under rubble and firefighters took nearly two hours to rescue her.
Mrs Hodgkiss is understood to have suffered cuts and bruises in the explosion.
Jon French, Incident Commander from Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service at the scene last night said: “The elderly lady had a miraculous escape. When the building collapsed falling timbers and debris created a space or ‘void’ which protected her until we were able to locate and rescue her.
"Our crews worked for 30 minutes removing a lot of bricks, timber and debris to free her.
“Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service would like to thank all those organisations that assisted in the search and rescue last night. Including the Urban Search and Rescue Team who helped us removing debris, Fire Service search dogs from Hampshire and West Midlands who helped us in the search, Hazardous Areas Response Team (HART) Paramedics who helped with the rescue and all other organisations that assisted last night.”
County Councillor Paul McLain is the local member and said, “Huge thanks to everyone who stepped in to help during last night’s incident. The community came together to support each other and I would like to thank The Langton, Starline Taxis and The Big Sleep and the Premier Inn for their help. Understandably people are concerned about the cause and we are keen to reassure people as much as we can that they remain safe.”
Cheltenham Borough Council today said there are 11 properties which are severely damaged.
Accommodation has been found for five people and a pet dog from four homes in the street.
The central part of Rosehill Street will be closed for the foreseeable future until all houses are declared safe. The rest of the street is open and residents are returning back to their properties.
Jane Griffiths, emergency coordination team manager said: "When we arrived at Rosehill Street yesterday, we needed to find accommodation for five people and a dog. We are now working towards long term accommodation and support for all the families affected, as well as finding them clothing and other essentials.
"We have made contact with the majority of the residents who are affected and are working with them on alternative accommodation, although some of them have been able to secure accommodation with friends and families.
"Our refuse collectors are currently working in the street to clear the recycling and the rubble from outside the danger zones to start the clean up."
If you are a resident of Rosehill Street and would like more information please call 01242 262626.
Residents on Rosehill Street told how debris was hurled 50ft up the road.
Andy Turvey, 58, who lives just fives doors down from the blast, walked past the property just 30 seconds before it blew up.
The voiceover artist, first on the scene with next-door neighbour Denise Jones, 57, said: "It was a miracle we were not killed.
"We had just walked past the house to get a Chinese takeaway. There was an almighty bang and we turned around to see the whole property had come down.
"Debris flew right across the road. There was just total devastation and a strong smell of gas.
"I ran back and heard a young woman screaming. She was standing on top of a pile of rubble and had dust covering her face.
"She did not seem injured but was in real distress. I took her hand and guided her out of harm's way and another man went and got her dog - which also survived.
"I will never forget the look on her face - she was terrified."
Emergency crews were called to the terraced street, which has about 108 homes, at around 7.37pm after reports that an explosion had torn through number 34.
The house - registered as being occupied by pensioner Betty Hodgkiss - was completely destroyed and the house next door was also badly damaged.
Nearby cars were crushed by falling debris and many neighbours reported that their windows had been smashed,
Web developer Sirbastian Manning, 24, whose property backs onto number 34 just 20 yards away, said: "I thought it was a plane crash at first.
"Debris began raining down on our roof."
Police called in an urban search and rescue team to help fire crews hunt for more survivors after the young woman, believed to live next-door to the explosion, was found.
At around 9.15pm they pulled a pensioner from the rubble. She was treated at the scene and taken to hospital but is not believed to be seriously injured.
Great Western Ambulance Service (GWAS) confirmed they treated three people at the scene - including the elderly lady.
Spokesman John Oliver said: "The lady was rescued with the help of our specialist area response team, which are trained to deal with such situations.
"She was conscious and breathing and taken to Gloucestershire Royal Hospital. There is nothing to suggest her injuries were serious.
"A neighbour was taken to hospital after being hit by a brick. A woman in a house opposite was also treated at the scene for cuts."
Gas supplier Wales & West Utilities said it was investigating the cause of the blast.
A statement said: "We received reports of an incident on Rosehill Street, Cheltenham and immediately dispatched a team.
"Gas supplies to the properties were isolated, however, it is not possible at this stage to confirm the cause of the incident. Investigations remain ongoing.
"Our team will continue to work closely with all agencies on site in dealing with the situation."
Neighbouring residents were evacuated and sought refuge in the nearby Langton pub.
It is understood they all found alternative overnight accomodation with friends and family.
Chief Fire Officer Jon Hall said the building was on fire when they arrived.
A GFRS statement said:
'GFRS has rescued an elderly lady from the scene of what is believed to be a gas explosion in Rosehill Street, Cheltenham.
The lady has been taken to Cheltenham General Hospital and was conscious when leaving the scene.
The service is confident that no one else is inside the property and there are no other injuries.
Incident commander, Jeff Neathway, said: “The house was already completely demolished when we arrived on scene.
“We suspected that an elderly lady who lived alone was still inside.
“Four firefighters using breathing equipment and specialist lighting helped rescue the lady and she was conscious and talking when we got her to the ambulance.”
The fire service was called out to several reports of an explosion at just after 7.35pm this evening.
Two fire engines from Kingsditch and Uckington Fire Stations were immediately sent along with the rescue appliance from Gloucester.
When they arrived on scene, the extent of the damage was so extensive that a further three crews from around the county were deployed as well as the Urban Search and Rescue team.
The house involved has been completely demolished and neighbours have been evacuated.
Crews expect to be on scene helping to make the area safe for the next hour.'
Mr Hall said: “I’m extremely proud of the way our firefighters reacted tonight.
“The house was already completely demolished before we arrived and there was no doubt that this was a dangerous situation with unstable properties on either side.
“Once our crews heard the elderly lady calling out for help, they didn’t hesitate and immediately started making preparations for rescue putting her safety before their own.
“Thankfully, their efforts paid off and the lady was rescued, was alert and talking to our crews before she went to hospital.
“I’m grateful that incidents like this are rare and I’d like to thank everyone who took part in the rescue for their efforts.”
Rosehill Street was closed along with Hales Road.
Approximately 30 homes on the road were evacuated and a structural engineer was in attendance until 4am this morning as a number of houses appear to have been extensively damaged.
Both Rosehill Street and Hales Road were closed while the emergency services worked in the area. Rosehill Street remained closed this morning.
The gas company are also in attendance to shut off the gas supply to the area.
This morning residents were returning to a scene of devastation. Those living on houses along the road outside of the cordon were allowed to go back to their homes but around 30 properties will not be accessible until the end of today.
Rosehill Street resident Chris Lofthouse was one of the evacuees.
He said: "We just had to stay with friends last night - we didn't go to the church or the pub.
"I had to phone my bosses this morning anmd told them to just look at the news."
Echo reporter Ben Evans was at the scene last night.
He said: "I was looking into Rosehill Street. All of a sudden the ground shook and there was a loud bang. There was lots of smoke and debris flew up 50ft in the air.
"Once it settled, everyone came out of their homes. They were standing around wondering what had caused it.
"There's nothing left of the house. There's just a gap in the street. it's completely disintegrated."
Matthew Zajczyk, 22, said: "I heard it all the way over in Wyman's Brook. It was a loud bang. I thought it was thunder. Now I'm down here I can see it's a house that's exploded. It's crazy."
There were reports of powercuts in Prestbury but power is now back and it is not known if the cut was due to the explosion.
Simpsons Fish and Chips posted on Facebook: "Terrible gas explosion on Rosehill Street, Cheltenham. Very close to us, could hear it from the shop. House is destroyed but no reported injuries. Our thoughts are with those affected."
Hales Road resident Sarah Symes said the explosion had been so loud she had initially thought it had happened in her home. Then she looked out of the window and saw the smoke billowing.
"It really felt like a bomb exploding. At first the police came and told us to go back in our houses as another explosion might happen. It's been very disconcerting.
"Many of my neighbours have had their doors and windows blown in. I don't think there will be many people spending the night at home."
A spokesman for Western Power Distribution, Stella Hayward, said electricity cuts in Cheltenham were unconnected to the explosion in Rosehill Street.
She said: “We had a fault on one of our underground cables. That caused a power cut to the area just after 7pm. Initially 11,000 customers were affected. Then at 7.40pm another 3,500 customers were also affected for 12 minutes.
“The initial householders affected had their power returned in stages with the last ones being restored by 9.45pm.”
The fault was isolated last night and teams from the electricity company are continuing with repair work today.
Don't miss more reports, pictures, reaction and analysis in tomorrow's Gloucestershire Echo newspaper.