Body found after Hunterdon County house explosion

HAMPTON, N.J. - August 28, 2013

State Police said the body is likely that of the woman who lived there and who was unaccounted for following the explosion.

"It was just a huge explosion," said neighbor Mary Dellaventura. "I didn't know what it was. I practically got knocked out of bed."

It was just before 7:00 a.m. Wednesday on New Street in Hampton when a giant explosion and fire shook this neighborhood, leveling a home and trapping a female resident in the burning basement.

"I couldn't see her," said neighbor Thomas Dellaventura. "But I could hear her, and I was telling her, 'Hang in, we are going to get you.'"

While Dellaventura, a retired firefighter, tried to calm the frantic woman, identified by her ex-husband as Deborah Smith, neighbor Ed Sonnenberg shot video of the inferno as it was swallowing up the collapsed house.

"I came out here in the back, and that house was completely engulfed in flames," Sonnenberg said.

Dellaventura says he tried to remove burning debris to get to Smith, but it was too heavy and too hot.

"The fire accelerated, and the radiant heat got to be too great," said Dellaventura. "I just had to back out. I was starting to burn."

The victim's ex-husband tells Action News that Deborah Smith made a panicked cell phone call to a friend from the burning basement looking for help. Authorities say she was the only one home at the time of the explosion.

The property is registered to a George Tully. While investigators worked in the smoking rubble, Smith's remains were recovered and removed by the Hunterdon County medical examiner's office.

Authorities say there are no natural gas lines running into the house.

The fire marshal, state police bomb squad and other agencies are investigating the cause trying to figure out exactly what triggered the explosion.

"It's a slow process, a methodical process to make sure the investigation is done properly," New Jersey State Police Sergeant Adam Grossman.

Meantime, the retired firefighter who tried to get to the woman trapped in the burning basement is devastated he couldn't do more.

"I heard her a couple times when the fire really started going," said Thomas Dellaventura. "And I backed away, and I didn't hear anything anymore."

"I have a much better understanding of when he used to come home from these kinds of scenes and be upset," said his wife, Mary.

The entire neighborhood is upset, haunted by the knowledge that Deborah Smith was alive after the explosion but couldn't survive the flames.

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