COLUMBIA — A neighbor burst into an elderly couple's East Campus home after it exploded Friday and tried heroically to free a retired MU professor from the burning debris.
John "Jack" Kennedy, of 1809 Cliff Drive, was coming home in a shirt and jeans from a trip to the supermarket when he was halted by the shock wave from the explosion in a house two doors down, said his wife Nancy, 73.
Residents blocks away said they too could feel the blast.
Debris was scattered anywhere from 100 to 150 feet away from the home, said Battalion Chief Steve Sapp.
"I was bringing in my groceries, and I hardly got to the step," said Nancy Kennedy. "If you've ever lived in a war zone, you would know what it was."
Her 80-year-old husband rushed past the homes that separated his from 308 McNab Drive where Merna and Carl Sneed lived.
By the time he arrived, Merna Sneed, 84, had been blown out of the house. Merna's husband, Carl, was trapped between the first floor and the basement, Sapp said. The two-story home's first floor had partially collapsed because of the heat and fire.
Chest deep in debris, Carl Sneed reached out and struggled to grasp Jack Kennedy's hand, Kennedy told investigators.
"He tried a couple of times before the heat of the fire forced him to back away for his own personal safety," Sapp said about Kennedy. "We'll probably never know the exact condition (Carl) was in."
Columbia firefighters arrived several minutes after Kennedy had been pushed out of the house by the intense heat at about 11:20 a.m. Kennedy suffered minor burns to his scalp.
AmerenUE and Columbia Water & Light employees were at the scene almost immediately after the firefighters.
By then, Sapp said, a plume of smoke was 20 to 30 feet high, thick, black smoke billowing into the sky.
Sapp said it was the first explosion of this magnitude in Columbia since the 1970s. The cause of the explosion is still under investigation. Natural gas among other possible causes are still being considered.
Rescue efforts were hampered by the narrowness of the street, Sapp said.
However, those issues were resolved within minutes.
"(Firefighting efforts) were futile after the first few minutes after we arrived," Sapp said. "We went into rescue mode, but there was no way that firefighters" could get inside the building.
Columbia fire fighters Delwyn Duncan and Jeff Kaufmann went around to the back of the house only to find Merna Sneed trapped underneath debris.
They immediately rushed her to an ambulance and then to University Hospital. As of Friday night, she was still listed in critical condition in the hospital's burn unit. According to a news release from the Columbia Fire Department, burns cover more than 30 percent of her body.
The heat was so powerful it burned the back of Columbia firefighter Ben Trutken's ears, Sapp said.
The Columbia Fire Department successfully smothered the fire about an hour later.
Investigators found the body of Carl Sneed, 87, in the basement of the house.
Police were able to briefly interview Merna Sneed.
"(She's) gone through some surgeries," Sapp said. "It's doubful that we'll be able to talk to her at least for a day or so depending on how she is progressing."
In the meantime, neighbors, family members, friends and rescue workers are feeling the effects of this tragedy.
"We're saddened we couldn't get to Carl earlier," Sapp said. "Sometimes that's the way things work out."
The department planned to nominate Kennedy for the Citizen's Heroism Award.
If you have information about the explosion or witnessed it, please call the Missourian news desk (573) 882-5720 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Missourian will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.
-- Jonathon Braden, Lauren Fredman, Annie Harp and Matt Harris contributed to this report.