Firefighters tell the story of Ballantyne man’s ‘miraculous’ rescue in home explosion

Finally, firefighters saw his face.

Cardiologist Jebran Karam was buried under six to eight feet of rubble when his Ballantyne house exploded July 2, firefighters from Charlotte Fire Station No. 3 told reporters Friday.

Somehow, Karam stayed conscious. He called 911 on his smartwatch and stayed on the phone with dispatchers, so his rescue team knew he was alive.

As more than 80 firefighters rushed to the area, Karam was able to call out and talk to them directly. They maneuvered around two-by-fours and chunks of stone to create a “basketball-sized” hole all the way down to his head, firefighter Matt Saraceno said.

A helicopter was standing by, ready to airlift the 59-year-old doctor to Carolinas Medical Center, firefighter Chris Cangemi said.

It would take hours to bring him to safety. His wife, 58-year-old Rania Karam, was found dead after an even longer search.

The Station 3 firefighters had trained for situations like this – the 6,000-square-foot house was most likely leveled by an internal gas line explosion that also damaged nearby houses – but they say they hadn’t encountered it in the real world.

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Gas explosions are less common than fires, and even though firefighters typically operate on the assumption that they’re trying to rescue someone who’s still alive, Cangemi said he was shocked to realize Jebran Karam could talk to them.

The street-level view of the home that exploded Tuesday afternoon on James Jack Lane is one of obliteration. Investigators from ATF, CFD and CMPD dug through the rubble of a home Ballantyne Wednesday, July 3, 2019. An explosion destroyed the south Charlotte house Tuesday afternoon, authorities said, and left one person dead and another with life-threatening injuries. The house in the 11000 block of James Jack Lane was last sold for $1.27 million in 2 015, county records show. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

‘A chess game’

Once they could see Jebran Karam’s head, the rescue effort went on, with the firefighters taking care to avoid shifting the rubble in a way that could hurt the victims or themselves.

“It’s like a chess game,” Cangemi said.

Rescue 3, the truck the Station 3 team brought to the scene on James Jack Lane, was full of high-tech equipment for delicate rescues like this one. One tool — a tiny camera attached to a long pole — helped them see where debris rested around Karam and which parts of his body were trapped, firefighter Cody Whiteside said.

The small hole in the rubble grew to 10 feet across, big enough to bring in a stretcher, the firefighters said. From there, they rushed Karam past the swimming pool behind his house to a neighbor’s yard and then into the woods, where they had to cross a creek to reach the helicopter waiting on Ballantyne Country Club’s golf course.

Karam made it to the hospital with serious injuries. Due to patient privacy laws, an Atrium Health spokeswoman said Friday that she could not give updates on his condition.

The men said they didn’t pause to rejoice over Karam’s survival.

“It was, ‘Oh wow, OK, now let’s get to work,’” Saraceno said.

‘Focus on the positive’

As the night wore on, they continued to search for Rania Karam.

Eventually, everyone was ordered to be quiet at the scene — even the helicopters had to leave the area — so rescuers could use a sensitive machine to detect any noise in the rubble, even shallow breathing, Whiteside said.

They pinged Rania Karam’s cellphone and followed that sound to find it, hoping she would be nearby. She wasn’t.

Around 9 p.m., about seven hours after the explosion, Rania Karam’s body was found.

“You go from being very happy that you do pull someone (alive) to, unfortunately, the other outcome … everyone has to deal with that,” Saraceno said. “But it’s miraculous that we were able to pull someone out, and we’ve just got to focus on the positive.”

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One positive side was the community’s support during the long search, the firefighters said.

The temperature was in the 90s when the house exploded. The fire department provides lighter outfits for rescue operations, but the explosion was initially reported as a house fire, so the firefighters arrived in full fire-protective gear, Cangemi said.

One firefighter ended up going to the hospital for dehydration, the fire department reported the day of the explosion, and seven more were given IV treatment at the scene.

But the Station 3 crew was impressed with how neighbors came together, bringing water and food out of their houses to try to keep the rescuers in good shape.

They’re grateful, but they laughed at the idea that they’d get extra time off after the long rescue effort. Firefighters work 24-hour shifts, so they didn’t even go home until the next morning, hours after they left the Ballantyne scene.

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Jane Wester is a Charlotte native and has been covering criminal justice and public safety for The Charlotte Observer since May 2017.