OCEAN CITY, Md.-- Police arrested an alleged hit-and-run driver late Wednesday night after a car crashed into a Caroline Street home, struck the gas meter and set the house aflame, authorities said.
The driver, Jay Benedict, 36, fled the scene despite fire erupting immediately in the home, which was inhabited by two elderly occupants, according to witness and police accounts.
The couple, Richard and Marian Manning, escaped without injury. Police later nabbed Benedict at Pickles Pub, a bar two blocks away from the suspect's 7th Street home, police said.
When reached for comment, Marian Manning said she was not ready to talk about the incident, but did confirm that she and her husband were unharmed.
The fire started when Benedict lost control of his truck while attempting to make a right turn onto Philadelphia Avenue at the base of the Route 50 bridge. He jumped the median and smashed into the southwest corner of the house, which is located at the corner or Caroline Street and Philadelphia Avenue. In the process he disrupted an exterior gas line, authorities said.
"I heard this 'ERRRR' and looked out the window and saw the truck sideswipe the house," said Bernard Rewers, who lives adjacent to the Caroline Street home in the Bridgeview Apartments on North Division Street. "The fire started pretty much instantly."
The damage to Benedict's car was substantial, but not enough to put it out of commission. He quickly drove off with, as Rewers described it, the fire in his rearview mirror.
Dozens of people gathered in the busy intersection outside the burning two-story home. Some in the crowd shouted at those inside, trying to advise the best way to escape, Rewers said.
"She opened the door (on the south side of the house) and flames flew in at her, so then she went out the other side," said Rewers, who was unsure if the other resident made it out the same way.
The Fire Marshal's Office reported that volunteer firefighters, who arrived five minutes after receiving the call, assisted occupants with vacating the structure. Fire crews, including additional support from Berlin, remained at the scene for about two hours to extinguish the blaze.
"The smoke or pollution coming from the fire reached 10 to 12 feet above the roof," said George Wess, a neighbor who also lives across the street. "There's wires around the house but it didn't cause any blackouts. ... I think they did a pretty good job since no lives were lost."
Crews from Eastern Shore Gas secured the severed gas lines. The home's interior was gutted and two vehicles in the driveway were also considerably damaged, police said.
The booking officer confirmed that Benedict had had a few alcoholic beverages, though it would be impossible to blame the accident on intoxicated driving since the suspect may very well have downed a number of drinks at the pub after the accident, Ocean City Police spokesman Barry Neeb said.
"Lord knows what he had in the bar," Neeb said. "Once the driver leaves the car it becomes near impossible to prove how drunk the driver was at the time. ... In instances like this, you want to throw the book at him but in this situation you really can't."
Though authorities allege the suspect severely endangered the lives of the victims, the circumstances allowed police to only charge Benedict with hit and run, along with minor traffic charges.
Authorities notified the American Red Cross to assist the victims, who are staying at a friend's house. One firefighter was treated at the scene for a minor knee injury, according to the Fire Marshal's Office.
Republished with permission of The Daily Times.