TOWNSHEND -- An early morning explosion demolished a historic home near Townshend Common Wednesday, sending wood and glass flying hundreds of feet but injuring no one.
State police did not settle on a definitive cause for the blast, which also damaged a dental office next door, but both police and witnesses noted the smell of propane at the Grafton Road house.
Regardless of the cause, the damage left neighbors shaking their heads and giving thanks that the homeowner was away on vacation when the nearly 200-year-old structure was knocked from its foundation.
"You look at it and think, no one would have survived that," said Joe Winrich, a resident of nearby Common Road.
Winrich, his wife and daughter were among those awakened by the blast before 3 a.m.
"You could feel the concussion," he said, adding that there was a subsequent odor of "sulfur and propane."
At first, no one was sure whether homeowner Carlton Smith might have been inside. Winrich said an emergency dispatcher instructed him to "go over there and see if someone is screaming for help."
But Doug Winot, Townshend's fire chief, said responders were notified within 20 minutes that Smith was not home.
"So that was a relief," Winot said.
The veteran fire chief, though, said he never had seen such devastation.
"We got here, and there was debris all the way across the road. The house was flat on the ground," Winot said.
Across the street, more debris was cordoned off by yellow and red emergency tape: The home's cracked wooden door had landed there along with glass, shutters, a mangled screen door and a white post bearing the house number.
"Imagine if somebody was just out in the yard," said Annette Leigh, who owns that grassy patch beside her Grafton Road home. "They could've been killed."
Officials said glass was found near the Townshend Church a few hundred feet away. And debris was so thick in front of the home that responders were forced to shut Route 35 for hours.
Next door to the damaged home, the blast shattered several windows and pockmarked the siding at West River Family Dental. Winot noted that a piece of metal from Smith's home had lodged like an arrow in the side of the dental office.
"It's just amazing, the force of it," he said.
Police said a "structural analysis will be conducted prior to the reopening of the dental office."
At the same time, though, two trees in the house's front yard were mostly unscathed. And responders expecting to find flames when they arrived instead came upon an eerily calm scene.
"No fire, no smoke, no nothing," Winot said.
He did, however, note an intense odor of propane.
"As soon as I pulled up, I could smell it," Winot said.
The fire chief said the homeowner "had issues with propane a few weeks ago." State police issued a press release noting the same concerns.
"It was determined that the owner had been experiencing the smell of propane over the past several weeks," Detective Sgt. Matt Nally said in a written statement.
If propane caused the explosion, it is not clear how long
"The neighbors came in (Tuesday) night at 8 o'clock and fed the cats," Winot said. "Everything was fine at 8 o'clock."
Nally said "the explosion is not considered suspicious and the investigation is continuing."
Anyone with any information is asked to contact Nally at 802-229-9191 or the Vermont Arson Tip Award Program at 1-800-32-ARSON.
In addition to Townshend firefighters and state police, Winot said fire crews from NewBrook, Jamaica, Wardsboro, Williamsville and Dummerston assisted at the scene. Also, firefighters from Grafton and Brattleboro responded to stand by in case of other emergencies.
With Townshend's fire pond still out of commission from Tropical Storm Irene damage -- the Selectboard awarded a contract for pond repairs this week -- Winot said he requested extra manpower mainly for water-supply purposes.
"I didn't know if this was going to go up in flames," he said. "I held everybody here until the power company came and shut off the power."
It turned out that no water was needed. And no injuries were reported, though police said they believe two cats perished in the explosion.
The home, Nally wrote, "is considered a total loss."
And that is a loss not only for Smith, a retired teacher at neighboring Leland and Gray Union High School, but also for the town.
Robert DuGrenier, president of Townshend Historical Society, said the home dated to 1805 and originally belonged to the Holbrook family.
"They were one of the original settlers," he said.
The home also has a connection to American Impressionist painter Theodore Robinson, a Vermont native and a student and friend of renowned Impressionist Claude Monet.
DuGrenier said that, during an 1895 visit with his uncle, who lived in the Grafton Road home, Robinson painted a piece called "A Townshend Church."
DuGrenier noted that the area has been hit by "so much devastation" including fires that the Holbrook home had not succumbed to.
"It's such a shame," he said, surveying the property Wednesday morning. "It's just beyond comprehension."
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.