Columbia Gas company workers stand where Scores Gentleman's Club was leveled by an explosion in downtown Springfield, Mass., on Friday evening. At least 18 people were hurt, none seriously. Club employees had reported smelling gas earlier in the week.
(Photo: Don Treeger, Springfield Republican/AP)
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) - Officials had already evacuated part of the entertainment district in one of New England's biggest cities because of a gas leak and odor report before a natural gas explosion leveled a strip club and heavily damaged a dozen other buildings, including a day care. Eighteen people were injured, many of them first responders.
Investigators were trying to figure out what the caused the Friday evening blast that could be heard for miles and left a large hole in the ground where the multistory brick building housing Scores Gentleman's Club once stood and debris scattered over several blocks.
Teams of inspectors on Saturday were scheduled to assess the level of damage to other buildings in downtown Springfield. Some controlled demolition was expected.
Firefighters, police officers and gas company workers were in the area filled with commercial properties and residences after responding to a gas leak and odor reported about an hour before the explosion.
"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.
"This is a miracle on Worthington Street that no one was killed," Lt. Gov. Tim Murray said at a news conference. 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. A shelter was set up at a school.
Coan said his office has begun an investigation into the cause of the blast, as well as the 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. She said the company had already scanned the area and had not yet found any measurable readings.
Doiron said the company scanned its records and did not find any gas odor calls to the area where the strip club was located. She said the company does not yet know the source of the leak.
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 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.
On Friday night, residents milled around the neighborhood where the explosion occurred, stunned by the destruction and confused by the cordoned-off area, which grew as crews continued to search for gas leaks. The mayor warned against looting, saying police would be out in force.
Wayne Davis, who lives about a block away from the destroyed building, said he felt his apartment shake.
"I was laying down in bed, and I started feeling the building shaking and creaking," he said.
The Navy veteran said the boom from the explosion was louder than anything he'd ever heard, including the sound of a jet landing on an aircraft carrier.
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.
A Scores dancer named Debbie told the The Springfield Republican she was on stage when the "house mom" came up and told everyone to evacuate. She told the paper she saw smoke when she went upstairs to get her clothes, and the manager ordered everyone to get out, "naked or not."
Another dancer said they got 20 minutes' notice to leave.
"I went across the street to the Mardi Gras Champagne Room, where we were having a drink, and the building where I work blew up," 21-year-old Megan Labombard said.
The downtown was crowded with holiday revelers. Between 30 and 40 people were in Theodore's, about two blocks from Scores.
"It rocked us so hard the windows smashed. It felt like an earthquake or a large explosion," waitress Stephanie Simmons told the Republican. "There was pretty much chaos."
Contributing: Michael WInter