“All I Felt Was Heat”

A firefighter inside last week's explosion tells his story.

FORESTVILLE, Md. -- The explosion rocked a Prince George's County community last week and garnered national attention.  A firefighter who witnessed the blast from a different vantage point is sharing what he witnessed inside the Penn Mar Shopping Center last Thursday.  

"All I felt was heat," Prince George's Fire Captain Robert Rouse remembers. "Giving up was not an option, I had to keep going."

The 23-year veteran firefighter was with the first fire unit to answer the call for reports of a natural gas leak. After evacuating 45 employees and customers at area businesses, he saw what appeared to be the source of a bubbling pool of natural gas at the back of the business.

"When I got to the rear, I glanced around the corner, and I realized the electric meter was on fire," Rouse told News4.

Instinct -- and more than two decades experience -- told Rouse an explosion could happen at any second.

"I figured I had two choices -- go forward or go backwards. I just decided to close my eyes and dive forward," Rouse said.

Rouse received first and second degree burns to his face and hands, but otherwise escaped the blast unscathed.

At the very same moment, at the front of the building, 22-year-old volunteer firefighter Greg Powell, was headed to the door, when he saw the fireball.

"Last thing I remember is walking to the door and I looked, and saw the fire coming toward the glass," Powell said. "All I had time to do was turn my head."

The explosion tossed Powell several feet, and left him with injuries to his hand and side.

A volunteer firefighter for the past three years, Powell said he's well aware of the dangers, but that won't deter him from getting back on the job.

"My girlfriend doesn't want me to continue to do this, my mom is scared, my whole family doesn't want me to continue, but I'm going to. I have a love for this," Powell said.

Captain Rouse echoed Powell's feelings. He is eligible for retirement this fall, but he says that, with the support of his wife, he too plans to return to duty.

"For me and the crew that I work with, we survived it, and it's now a lesson for us," Rouse said.

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A total of eight firefighters and one gas company employee were hurt.  All nine were released from the hospital the same day. 

The explosion has been ruled accidental.

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