updated 10/19/2007 3:48:17 PM ET 2007-10-19T19:48:17

An explosion leveled a house under construction and a vacant building next door early Friday, killing one worker and injuring four others.

Authorities were investigating whether someone broke into the house and damaged a natural gas line.

The explosion was so powerful it caused debris to fly up to four blocks away and sparked several fires that were under control within two hours, Deputy Fire Chief Charles Weiss said. Emergency crews used search dogs and chain saws to rescue trapped construction workers from the smoking pile of splintered wood and siding.

The blast leveled a newly constructed three-story home, which was for sale with prospective owners expected to close next week, and a vacant multifamily building next door. It happened about 7:30 a.m., as construction workers arrived for work and noticed a possible break-in, authorities said.

“We believe there might have been a break-in and someone may have hit a gas line. That’s a theory we’re investigating,” Irvington Mayor Wayne Smith said.

Several homes near the blast site are vacant, others recently demolished. Smith said the neighborhood was “struggling,” while neighbors described it as drug-infested.

The four injured workers, three construction workers and a security guard, were taken to University Hospital in Newark in critical condition, and then all were transferred to a Livingston hospital that specializes in burns, University Hospital spokesman Rogers Ramsey said.

Minor injuries
A teen who said he was near the explosion was treated and released from University Hospital, Ramsey said. Four firefighters were treated for minor injuries, authorities said.

The names of victims were not released, and calls to Kelmar Construction Corp., which built the house, were not returned. Guard dogs at the scene were unharmed, authorities said.

Rescue workers searched the debris for several hours, but found no other victims.

There was a strong natural gas odor at the site of the explosion in Irvington, about 5 miles west of Newark, said Paul Loriquet, spokesman for the Essex County prosecutor’s office.

John Buniewicz, 72, who lives a half a block away, spilled hot coffee on his kitchen floor as he heard the loud boom.

“It was so loud, I thought the roof came down, and I heard glass shattering all over the place,” Buniewicz said.

The mayor said the neighboring vacant home destroyed by the blast was owned by the state’s school construction agency and was set to be demolished. That home was vacant and tightly secured, said Michael Cricco, an agency project officer.

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