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Blast collapses part of motel; 1 dead

An explosion partially collapsed a two-story Georgia motel Tuesday. The blast may have trapped a maintenance worker in the rubble. Two more men may be unaccounted for.
Motel Explosion
Emergency workers walk toward a damaged area of a motel in Bremen, Ga. One employee said the explosion could be heard at least two miles up the road.Gene Blythe / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

An explosion that was apparently caused by a gas leak rocked a motel Tuesday, killing at least one person and raising fears that two others were trapped in the rubble, authorities said.

The blast rattled the 73-room motel shortly before 9 a.m., investigators said, collapsing the roof over a corner of rooms and dumping debris on cars parked below.

Six to eight rooms were destroyed, with the damage centered on a laundry-maintenance room, said Bremen Fire Chief Clark Farr.

Most of the motel’s occupants had checked out, and only three or four people were inside at the time, said Police Capt. Richard Harrison. A 44-year-old maintenance worker, Reese Helton, was missing and feared trapped in the collapsed corner of the building.

The search for him, which began around 1 p.m., was hindered initially by lingering hot spots. The hot spots were eventually extinguished. Search dogs were aiding the effort.

Two more men may be unaccounted for; they had no local personal contacts and may have been transients or day laborers, said Chief Alex Cohilas of the Clayton County Fire Department.

After more than nine hours of searching, authorities said human remains were found on the first floor.

“We continue to search. We have no positive identification, because the body is burned beyond recognition,” Cohilas said.

A fire inspection late last year found no violations at the motel, Farr said.

Maria Eskew, 39, said she had been trying to catch up on some sleep in a first-floor room when she heard the blast.

“I was scared to death,” she said. “I knew something was wrong because the lights went out and the power went off. I went to the window and all I saw was debris and smoke. ... It felt like it was on my floor. It was right above me.”

The explosion could be heard at least two miles up the road at a Holiday Inn Express, said its front desk clerk Lacey Bryant.

Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commission John Oxendine said the explosion’s cause was under investigation.

The motel’s signs advertised it as a Quality Inn & Suites, but its affiliation with the national franchise chain ended a year ago, said Robin Ferrier, a spokeswoman with Choice Hotels International, which owns the Quality Inn name. The motel’s manager was not immediately available for comment.

The motel is near Interstate 20 and about 10 miles east of the Alabama border.