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Natural gas blast rocks downtown Springfield, Mass.

A gas explosion destroys a strip club and damages other buildings in central Springfield, Mass., but no deaths are reported.

November 23, 2012|By Joseph Serna
  • A fire engine parks by a building damaged by a natural gas explosion that destroyed a nearby strip club in downtown Springfield, Mass.
A fire engine parks by a building damaged by a natural gas explosion that… (David Molnar, The Republican )

A natural gas explosion that tore through a strip club in western Massachusetts on Friday night scattered brick and glass for blocks, injured more than a dozen people and displaced dozens of apartment dwellers.

About 40 apartment units have been condemned, at least one neighboring building will have to be demolished and others will be inspected Saturday morning after what Springfield Police Commissioner William Fitchet called the "most devastating" gas explosion in his 40 years in the city. Despite the destruction, it appeared no one was killed.

About an hour before the 5:25 p.m. explosion, the local utility company, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, started receiving calls from people who smelled gas in downtown Springfield. Crews arrived within 30 minutes and determined the odor was coming from Scores Gentlemen's Club.

By then, State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said, gas had accumulated to an explosive level inside the building. Customers, employees and dancers were soon rushing to safety.

Debbie, a dancer at Scores who didn't want her last name used, told the Republican, a local newspaper, that she was performing on stage when she was told to evacuate.

As she gathered her clothes, Debbie told the newspaper, the manager told her to get out, "naked or not."

The manager hurried people over to the Mardi Gras Champagne Room across the street, the Republican reported. After barely half an hour, the building exploded.

"I feel lucky we got out," Debbie told the paper. She said all her work clothes were lost.

The blast was heard for miles, rattling the community and sending glass shards flying.

Coan credited local firefighters with saving lives.

"What would've been what's considered a routine call of odor of gas, they took the precaution, and thank God they did," Coan said at a televised news conference Friday night. "It really is a miracle."

Most of those injured were first responders trying to stop the gas leak or others urging people to take cover. City officials said at least 18 people were injured: nine firefighters, four Columbia Gas workers, two Springfield police officers, one city water and sewer maintenance worker and two civilians. Firefighters suffered cuts and back injuries, and one was injured falling into a sewer after the blast, Springfield Fire Commissioner Joseph Conant said.

Stephanie Simmons, a waitress working two blocks away from the explosion, described the blast to the Republican newspaper.

"It rocked us so hard the windows smashed. It felt like an earthquake or a large explosion," she said. "There was pretty much chaos."

Springfield building, electrical, plumbing and housing workers are scheduled to go building to building Saturday morning to assess the damage around the blast. At least three buildings around the club were severely damaged. Officials said they were considering controlled demolitions Friday night.

"We're in triage and moving into stabilization," Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said. "We will continue to build the city back bigger, better and stronger."

Tenants in nearby apartments will have to find somewhere else to sleep while building officials determine whether the buildings can be declared safe.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency was activated after the explosion, and workers will help find shelter for displaced residents, Lt. Gov. Tim Murray said.

Over the next two days, Columbia Gas crews will spread across downtown to drill holes in the streets and take measurements for gas leaks. Tests Friday night didn't reveal any other leaks, company spokeswoman Sheila Doiron said.

She said the company had no records of gas leaks in the Scores club or elsewhere in the area for the last 10 years.

On Nov. 10, a natural gas explosion in Indianapolis killed a married couple and left more than 30 houses uninhabitable. Authorities have opened a homicide investigation into that blast.

joseph.serna@latimes.com

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