By Bridget Manley and Ryan Alessi, publishers
(This story was updated Monday, Oct. 19, to include the Fire Marshal’s initial findings.)
The Harrisonburg Fire Department Fire Marshal’s Office has determined that the explosion and fire at Miller Circle on Saturday was the result of a natural gas leak inside the building. The exact origin of the leak and ignition source are still under investigation, the fire department confirmed Monday.
The explosion, which occurred around 8:30 a.m. Saturday, injured five people and a resulting fire leveled the shopping center at Miller Circle, between Purcell Park and South Main Street.
Gov. Ralph Northam tweeted at 10:15 a.m. Saturday morning that it was a gas explosion and that he deployed state emergency personnel to the scene. But Mike Parks, spokesman for the city of Harrisonburg, told reporters on the scene minutes later there might be “misinformation that has reached the governor’s office.”
“We’re still trying to determine a cause,” Parks said. But he said “incident was contained to this location.”
Parks said Sunday morning that investigators will be on the scene throughout the next few days trying to determine what caused the blast.
Parks confirmed that currently it is not a criminal investigation, when asked about rumors swirling on social media. He said that right now, investigators have “no reason whatsoever” to believe the incident was nefarious in nature.
Parks said that they have a large team working on the investigation due to the size of the explosion, and are interviewing anyone who was there to witness the scene at the time of the fire.
Parks confirmed that first responders transported three people from the scene, “two with what is believed to be serious injuries and one with minor injuries.” Both were flown to the University of Virginia Medical Center with life-threatening injuries. A third victim, a JMU student participating in an ROTC activity in a nearby parking lot, was taken to Sentara RMH and treated with cuts on the arm after being hit by flying glass, Parks said.
Two other students received treatment for minor injuries on the scene, according to a JMU news alert.
The shopping center included: Element Vapors and Naza Salon and Barber shop, which were to open at 11 a.m.; Hometown Music, which was to open at 10 a.m.; Blue Sprocket Sound, a recording studio that was closed for the weekend; and Harrisonburg Halal Market and Sweets, which was supposed to open at 9:30 a.m.
Several Columbia Gas crews were on site throughout the morning in the wake of the explosion and fire.
Workers at the nearby Wendy’s restaurant said the explosion started at the front of the shopping center, near the salon and started a fire. The building was still standing after the explosion, said one of the Wendy’s employees, who identified herself as Brenda.
“We’d seen the building fall. It was just the hair salon and then it moved on to the other side of the building,” she said.
The force from the initial explosion was powerful enough to blow off the Wendy’s back door. Some debris from the buildings landed as far away as Monument Avenue about a block away and strips of sheet metal hung in the trees behind where the shopping center once stood.
First responders from across the area were on scene all morning. In addition to Harrisonburg agencies, units from Broadway and Bridgewater also responded.
The incident closed the stretch of South Main Street from South Avenue to the entrance to the Dick Meyers Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram dealership, forcing traffic to detour to High Street to get between the south and north parts of town.
By 12:30 p.m. nearly a dozen engines were still on the scene, and firefighters were still working to put out the flames near the one portion of the structure that remained. Two aerial fire trucks were trying to extinguish the fire from above.
Parks said it might take hours more to fully put it out and secure the scene. As a precautionary measure, electricity remained out to the surrounding buildings, including the Wendy’s and Domino’s Pizza, El Charro’s Restaurant and Bluestone Bike & Run shop.
Brian O’Dell, general manager of The Harrisonburg Electric Commission, said the electricity to those buildings would remain off until investigators give the all-clear sign and said he’s confident the incident had nothing to do with electrical issues.
People as far away as Bridgewater, Dayton and Keezletown reported feeling or hearing the blast and the plume of smoke could be seen from across Harrisonburg for the hour after the explosion.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my time in Harrisonburg,” said O’Dell, the longtime HEC general manager. “It’s incredible in every sense of the word.”
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