A barber working inside a Harrisonburg strip mall destroyed by an explosion and ensuing three-alarm fire on Saturday told his boss he smelled gas 15 minutes before the blast.
Naza Salon and Barbershop manager Salwa Mahdi said two of three victims hospitalized by the explosion — which was heard and felt for miles — are the barber and his client, whose names she could not provide Sunday.
“[Police] said one person is in RMH emergency room. I went there to see if he’s the one. But he’s the one in Charlottesville,” Mahdi said. “I said, ‘Please let me know. I want to find out if he’s OK.’ They called me yesterday and said he’s OK. He has back pain and also his ear drum ruptured, but thanks God he’s alive.”
Despite Mahdi’s account, city officials said Sunday it was still too soon to say what caused the blast at about 8:30 a.m. on Miller Circle off South Main Street.
Two people were flown to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville with life-threatening injuries, according to city officials. The other person suffered non-life-threatening injuries and was taken to Sentara RMH Medical Center.
The victim treated at Sentara RMH is a James Madison University student, the school said in a Facebook post, and two other students — part of a roughly 30-person Army ROTC group running in a 10-mile race — were treated at the scene. The start-finish line for the race was located 30 yards from where the explosion took place.
Several of the ROTC members at the scene declined to comment Saturday.
Harrisonburg city spokesperson Michael Parks said the two victims flown to U.Va. were in stable condition.
Damon Boyd, of Eden, N.C., was working with his construction crew on the former Vibe Bistro & Hookah Lounge on South Main Street in Harrisonburg when the strip mall about a football field away to the north ruptured into a maelstrom of fire and smoke.
Boyd was operating a compact loader when the explosion ripped through the shopping center on Miller Circle.
“It blowed every window out down through there,” he said.
The explosion scattered debris throughout the several parking lots on Miller Circle, sent what appeared to be parts of a roof into trees and shattered glass at nearby businesses, including Fisher Auto Parts farther north on Main Street.
Boyd said he and other members of the construction crew saw the injured come out of the rubble as they ran over to help.
One of the injured, a man, was on the ground and “started hollering that he’s dying,” Boyd said. “It looked like something hit him in the face.”
Broken glass crunched under firefighters’ feet as they contained the flames. A dark gray cloud of smoke hung over the city and traveled north from the explosion. Police officers directed traffic away as crowds of curious onlookers gathered outside the police tape and took video on their phones.
In addition to the barber shop, the shopping center housed Hometown Music, Element Vapors, Harrisonburg Halal Market and Sweets and Blue Sprocket Sound, and it was located behind the Wendy’s on South Main Street near Funky’s Skate Center. Parks said the structure was a total loss.
No other victims were found after a preliminary search of the strip mall, according to Parks.
“We have no reason to believe there’s any other patients or victims at this time,” he said on Saturday.
On Sunday, the Harrisonburg Fire Department reported that it completed a secondary search of the site and found no additional victims, and the investigation into the cause was ongoing.
On Facebook, two of the businesses located in the mall wrote that all their employees were safe.
“We have received information from our landlord that the store has been destroyed by an explosion,” Hometown Music wrote on Facebook. “We were not open and the employees are OK. Thanks for [your] concern and prayers. … That’s all I know for now.”
Blue Sprocket Sound wrote that its crew was safe. On Twitter, Domino’s Pizza, located just across Miller Circle from the explosion site, wrote that none of its employees were at the location when the explosion took place.
Parks said none of the over 70 first responders from Harrisonburg and surrounding Rockingham County were injured at the scene.
Gov. Ralph Northam tweeted Saturday that he was “monitoring the situation in Harrisonburg after a gas explosion.”
However, Harrisonburg Fire Chief Matt Tobia said the investigation into the cause of the explosion is ongoing and may take several days. Parks said the city did not want to “rush to judgment” on the cause of the explosion, but there is no reason to believe there was any foul play.
In a statement on its website Saturday night, Columbia Gas of Virginia wrote that crews had “leak surveyed the surrounding area and have found no leaks.”
Pat Doorenbos, who lives about half a mile north on Hillcrest Drive, said she thought a tanker blew up on Interstate 81 or an airplane had crashed.
Others told the Daily News-Record Saturday morning that they heard the explosion from miles away in the county. Doorenbos described the noise as a “doozy.”
A large explosion rocked a Harrisonburg shopping center Saturday morning.
“My house literally shook,” she said as she stood near the Wendy’s next to the site. “My window was still rattling. I grew up on a farm and I thought to myself, ‘That sounds like gas or oil.’ There couldn’t be anything that huge that would shake my house.”
She said her neighbors were all around outside and Doorenbos said she was told by them that debris from the explosion had fallen into the street.
Jim Sacco contributed to this report.