Crime & Courts

‘I have all the ceiling on top of me:’ 911 call from Ballantyne gas explosion released

A 911 call released Thursday captures a Ballantyne man’s dramatic rescue and heartbreaking worry for his wife after their home exploded July 2.

Jebran Karam, 59, called 911 from his smartwatch after he was buried in the rubble of his James Jack Lane house, officials have said. He and his wife, 58-year-old Rania Karam, had just returned from vacation when the massive explosion took place. Charlotte Fire Department investigators determined natural gas built up in the house while they were gone and ignited when they got home.

Rania Karam was killed in the explosion, and Jebran Karam was airlifted to a local hospital with serious injuries, firefighters said.

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The couple suspected something was wrong in the moments before the explosion, Jebran Karam said during his 911 call.

“We were downstairs because we smelled something wrong and she went down and I went to follow her,” Karam said, according to a transcript released by the fire department. “And all of the sudden I heard an explosion that threw me away, and then the stairs all came (down) on me.”

The search

Over and over during the call, Karam told the dispatcher he was calling out for his wife and not hearing anything in response. She had been heading toward the circuit breaker when the explosion took place, he said.

Once the firefighters got to the house, Karam repeatedly asked to confirm that rescuers were looking for his wife and asked if anyone had heard from her.

Karam was able to give the dispatcher some information about his location in the house and his wife’s. Firefighters were eventually able to talk to him directly through the rubble, but it took hours to remove him safely, fire department officials have said.

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“I can see the daylight more,” Karam said as firefighters dug their way to him. “I don’t see anybody yet, but I can hear the saw and everything.”

The dispatcher urged him to stay still and wait until firefighters found him.

“All that banging is them trying to get down to you,” the dispatcher said.

Karam, a cardiologist, described some of his injuries as the rescue continued. His right foot was trapped and causing a lot of pain, he said, but his head was not hurt and he could breathe. Wood and drywall was on top of him, he said.

“Guys, I can’t take it,” Karam told firefighters at one point. “My foot. My back. Oh, my God.”

Atrium Health has said it is not able to provide updates on Karam’s condition for privacy reasons.

The explosion

The gas leak that caused the explosion was inside the house, which means maintenance responsibilities belonged to the homeowners and not Piedmont Natural Gas, fire officials said.

Anyone who smells natural gas should report it, Charlotte Fire Department Battalion Chief Matt Westover said after the explosion. The Karams would have had only a few minutes to make that call, given how quickly the house exploded after they returned home.

The explosion was heard and felt by people all around Ballantyne Country Club, including in neighboring subdivisions, according to other 911 calls released by the fire department.

“There’s, like, insulation all in the trees,” said one woman, who reported that she lived down the street from the Karams.

Another caller said the air smelled like firecrackers. A third caller, who said she lived in a different subdivision, said every neighbor on her street was outside, trying to figure out what happened.

Dispatchers asked each caller if they knew any details about the explosion. Most didn’t.

“If someone was in the house, they’re definitely injured,” one caller said. “The whole house is in shambles.”

One 911 caller said she lived directly across the street from the Karams and knew that they’d been on vacation.

“I don’t think they were home,” she said, sounding panicked. “I don’t know for certain. We need to make sure it’s not a gas line or something ... please hurry!”

In addition to leveling the Karams’ home, the explosion affected other nearby houses. The fire department reported that it caused about $5 million in damage altogether.

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