US natural gas explosion damages 42 buildings

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Inspectors stand in debris, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012, at the site of a gas explosion that leveled a strip club in Springfield, Mass., on Friday evening. Investigators were trying to figure out what caused the blast where the multistory brick building housing Scores Gentleman’s Club once stood. AP Photo/Jessica Hill

SPRINGFIELD, Massachusetts — Preliminary investigations show more than 40 buildings were damaged in a natural gas explosion in western Massachusetts that injured 18 people, building inspectors said Saturday.

A strip club was flattened and a day care center was heavily damaged in the massive explosion Friday night in Springfield, one of the biggest cities in the northeastern New England states.

No one was killed in the explosion.

Investigators were trying Saturday to figure out what caused the blast that could be heard for miles (kilometers), left a large hole in the ground where the multistory brick building housing Scores Gentleman’s Club once stood and scattered debris over several blocks.

Officials had already evacuated part of the entertainment district after responding to a gas leak and odor reported about an hour before the explosion. Gas workers venting a gas leak got indications that the building was about to explode and they ducked for cover behind a utility truck — along with firefighters and police officers — just before the blast, said Mark McDonald, president of the New England Gas Workers Association.

Most of the injured were in that group, and the truck that saved their lives was essentially demolished, he said.

“It really is a miracle and it’s an example of our public safety officials, each and every day, putting themselves in harm’s way, taking what could have been considered a very routine call of an odor of gas, but they took the proper precautions,” State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said. “And thanks to God that they did.”

Officials also marveled how the 5:30 p.m. blast occurred when a day care center next door was closed. The center’s building was heavily damaged.

Lt. Gov. Tim Murray and Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno were attending a tree-lighting ceremony when the explosion occurred. Sarno said some people mistakenly thought the boom was part of the holiday event.

The explosion blew out windows in a three-block radius, leaving at least three buildings irreparably damaged and causing emergency workers to evacuate a six-story apartment building that was buckling, police said. Pieces of broken glass littered streets and sidewalks. It was unclear how many residents had been evacuated.

Omar Fermin, manager of the Punta Cana Restaurant two blocks from the explosion site, found the floor-to-ceiling windows blasted out when he came to check on the property Saturday morning.

“It looks like an earthquake hit,” said Fermin, a native of the Dominican Republic. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

He said he was waiting for somebody to come and assess the damage. He worried the restaurant would remain closed for weeks while the owner seeks to replace the massive custom-made windows.

Authorities cordoned off the center of the explosion Saturday morning as building inspectors worked to identify unsafe structures. Anxious residents gathered at the perimeter, waiting for permission to visit their buildings.

Preliminary reports show the blast damaged 42 buildings housing 115 residential units, said Thomas Walsh, the mayor’s spokesman.

Three buildings were immediately condemned, and 24 others require additional inspections by structural engineers to determine whether they are safe, Walsh said.

Dogs trapped in abandoned buildings barked loudly Saturday as building inspectors fanned out across the area. Authorities are opening an animal shelter for pets affected by the explosion, Walsh said.

Coan, the fire marshal, said his office was investigating the cause of the blast and its possible origin. The state’s Department of Public Utilities was also investigating.

Sheila Doiron, a spokeswoman for Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, said the company will continue to monitor for any potential leaks within several blocks of the blast site. So far, she said, the company hadn’t yet found any measurable readings.

Doiron said the company also didn’t find in its records any gas odor calls to the area where the strip club was located.

The victims were taken to two hospitals in the city. None of their injuries was considered life-threatening, officials said. Those injured were nine firefighters, two police officers, four Columbia Gas workers, two civilians and another city employee.

Springfield, which is 90 miles (145 kilometers) west of Boston and has about 150,000 residents, is the largest city in western Massachusetts. It’s known as the home of the Basketball Hall of Fame, which is not in the vicinity of the blast.

The city has been rebuilding from damage it sustained in a June 2011 tornado.

The blast was so loud it was heard in several neighboring communities. Video from WWLP-TV showed the moment of the explosion, with smoke billowing into the air above the neighborhood.

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Associated Press writers Rodrique Ngowi, Bridget Murphy and Bob Salsberg in Boston and Jessica Hill in Springfield contributed to this report.

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