CHESTERFIELD - Luther Liimatainen was driving a dump truck toward the center of town early Wednesday when he heard a blast.
There goes a tire, he thought.
But when he climbed out of the truck, he saw Kevin A. Ladd's ruined house.
Liimatainen then heard a hissing sound in the rubble. Realizing the propane gas supply was still on, he shut off the nozzle on the tank.
Within minutes of Wednesday's explosion, which critically injured Ladd, neighbors rushed to the scene to launch an early rescue effort that was quickly fortified by members of fire and police departments from throughout the Hilltowns.
When trained rescuers arrived, neighbors were already boring into the remains of the house to locate Ladd, who was bleeding badly in the cellar, and to tend to his needs.
'I think the thing that impressed me most was the neighbors,' Edmund Smith, Chesterfield's deputy fire chief, said Wednesday. 'They were here with power tools and everything.'
Like many of the neighbors who comforted Ladd before rescuers arrived, Liimatainen shrugged off praise Wednesday. 'There were a lot of people there helping out - it's just something you do,' he said.
The blast was so intense it tossed debris 100 yards away - and could be heard in neighboring towns.
John Childs of Chesterfield was driving to work along Route 143 when he came upon the wreckage of Ladd's house. 'There was no fire, no smoke. It just blew out,' he said. 'I saw his pickup truck in the driveway and my heart just sank.'
Childs, who has known Ladd since childhood, rushed toward the house and started pulling debris away, looking for his friend. 'I didn't know if he was alive. I didn't know anything.'
Then, Childs heard his friend screaming.
'I couldn't believe it when I heard his voice,' he said. 'I was expecting body parts.'
Childs said that he called to Ladd: 'How bad are you? Are you bleeding bad?'
Ladd replied, 'I'm bad.' Childs called out: 'We've got to get him out of here before he bleeds to death.'
'I knew we had to get him out of there. Just to hear him speaking was refreshing,' he said of Ladd. 'He's a tough bird, this guy.'
Unable to get through the fallen boards with his bare hands, Childs went for a chainsaw to cut a path to Ladd, who remains under care at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester.
Child's determination to reach his friend - and his disregard for personal safety - was commonplace here Wednesday.
Chesterfield resident Kevin McQuaid tore his shirt off inside the ruined house to create a tourniquet. 'I told him, 'Hang in there, we got people coming,' ' McQuaid said.
He was part of an impromptu team that used saws to cut a 15-foot path through debris to reach Ladd, removing wreckage as they went. Ladd was found trapped in a roughly 6-by 8-foot open space in the basement.
Luther Curtis, who works on the Highway Department and is a first responder, also reached Ladd.
Rescuers said that Ladd remained conscious throughout the hour-long effort to extract him.
The blast, which scattered debris up and down the street, left neighbors frazzled. Janice Fama, who lives directly across the street from Ladd, lost several rabbits in the explosion. One died of fright and five escaped.
'They're definitely freaked out,' she said, calling to a bleating goat to comfort it.
Rescuers also pulled one of Ladd's cats from the blast. Neighbor Ann Pickrell said that Ladd had seven felines. He often left his window open, she said, so that they could come and go.
The other cats have not been found.
'The cats were his family,' said Ladd's friend Shannan Kenyon of Chesterfield, who described Ladd as having a soft spot for strays.
Kenyon lives down the hill from Ladd on Main Road. She arrived on the scene after hearing about the explosion. She said that Ladd is a motorcycle and snowmobile enthusiast who vacations in Maine and Canada.
He had a vintage snowmobile collection as well as a gun collection and ran a home style parts shop out of his garage. 'He's a sweet guy. If you needed help, he'd help you out,' she said.