EVERETT, Mass. - Jolted from bed by a thunderous explosion, John Malone grabbed his pants and looked out the window to see a flaming river of fuel flowing toward his apartment from an overturned tanker truck.
"I just grabbed my girlfriend and her aunt and ran," he said.
Malone, 28, was not hurt, and safety officials were surprised and grateful that no one else was either after the accident early yesterday that spilled 9,400 gallons of burning fuel into a sleeping community.
Witnesses said a 10-foot wall of flame flowed through the neighborhood below a traffic circle where the tanker flipped, blowing up cars and destroying two three-story residences, including Malone's.
Nearby residents were hastily evacuated, including about 85 residents of a senior-citizen complex and 10 to 12 families who lost their homes in the fire. Firefighters initially were hampered by frozen hydrants and icy conditions, but they were able to contain the fire in this closely packed Boston suburb.
"We're alive," said Malone, a machinist. "The other stuff you can get back."
Hours after the explosion, the fire still burned in spots. Two light poles that partially melted in the blast lay across the road near a line of burned-out cars, all encased in ice.
State police said driver Chad LaFrance, 30, of Dover, N.H., was going too fast when the tanker flipped and hit a guardrail around 1:40 a.m. He was cited for speeding and for not carrying a medical certificate that verifies his health. He was not injured.
Deputy Fire Chief Michael Ragucci said he arrived on the scene and saw "fire flowing" between buildings and parked cars, which began exploding in succession. Most of the gasoline appeared to have dispersed or burned before reaching storm drains that lead to nearby rivers.
Dylan Constantine, 32, said he was half-asleep watching TV when an explosion that "sounded like a shotgun blast" jolted him awake. He roused his roommates and they took off, at one point jumping through burning fuel that was flowing past his house.
Outside, cars were exploding, and Constantine noticed one man trying to drive away in a burning vehicle before abandoning it. "We were scared the whole street was going to go up," said Constantine, whose house was spared.
Constantine saw through the window of a burning home a Christmas tree that stayed lit even as the fire burned and water poured around it.