In explosion’s aftermath, massive cleanup underway at Plantation mall amid probe

PLANTATION, FLA. (WSVN) - A massive cleanup process is underway at the shopping plaza in Plantation where a suspected gas explosion leveled buildings and caused widespread damage, as investigators asked for the public’s patience while they work to determine the cause.

7News cameras captured crews closing off the blast zone at the Market on University shopping center with a chain-link fence, Sunday morning. Floodlights were also brought in so crews could work through the night at the strip mall located off University Drive near Interstate 595.

“There’s no way to tell how long it’s going to take. They have to dig through the debris and the rubble,” said Plantation Fire Deputy Chief Joel Gordon.

Officials said the blast ripped through the mall, Saturday morning, sending debris flying hundreds of feet.

“It was this huge boom, boom like thunder, so I thought it was thunder or whatever,” said Graig Foulks, a manager at the mall’s Total Nutrition store, “but it just kept going, and the place started shaking, and everything started falling, the ceiling started falling.”

Authorities believe the explosion came from Pizzafire, a vacant pizza shop.

In all, 23 people were hurt, including a child and another patient who was transported as a trauma alert.

The shopping plaza’s LA fitness was within the blast radius. Cellphone video sent in by a 7News viewer showed ceiling tiles on the floor as people fled to safety.

The gym’s hurricane impact windows were no match for the force of impact.

“I was standing up, and I just heard a big bang and saw all the windows blow out, and the ceiling started coming down,” said Sharif Mohammed, who was at the gym exercising with his wife. “It wasn’t just in one area; it was kind of all over.”

Chris Scott said he was training a client at the time.

“I thought that somebody dropped some weights, initially,” he said.

Survival mode kicked in as people ran away from the mall, in many cases leaving their belongings behind.

Ernie Herrera said he was working out downstairs when he was hit by a ceiling tile.

“Water started spraying everywhere, the fire alarm started going off. I immediately started running towards my wife, and then it dawned on me, my kids are at the kids’ care,” he said in a phone interview.

Herrera and his two sons, ages 5 and 3, were reunited shortly after.

7’s DroneCam captured the devastation and destruction, including damaged cars in the parking lot next to where the explosion went off.

Sunday afternoon, business owners and managers rushed back to take a look at the damage.

Erick and Traci Leon, the owners of Code Ninjas, said the blast reduced their computer coding center for children to rubble.

“I cannot even recognize the color of the walls that aren’t even around it,” said Erick. “Every aerial footage I’ve seen, I can’t understand it.”

The Leons, who were out of town at the time of the explosion, flew back home Sunday to see the damage in person.

“Seeing it now for the first time, I’m a little jittery because I can’t recognize anything,” said Erick.

The business owners said they were thankful they were closed for the Fourth of July holiday, because Code Ninjas is usually filled with children on a Saturday.

“It’s hard to fathom what would have been. We’re always open,” said Traci.

The couple, who had opened their Plantation location in December, said they never smelled natural gas.

“There wasn’t really much anything going on [at Pizzafire], and we never smelled anything. We were just waiting for someone else to move in,” said Traci.

But moments before the explosion, Hemi Patel with Presto Dry Cleaners knew something wasn’t right as she chatted with a customer.

“He said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I said, ‘I smell gas,’ and he took a deep breath and he’s like, ‘Yeah, I kind of do,'” she said, “and he left, and maybe five minutes later, that was it.”

Patel fought back tears as she described the terrifying moment the blast shook the building.

“Everything started just falling, and then that was it. I just ran out the door,” she said.

Foulks said he’s thankful it was a slow day at Total Nutrition. He said he told the business next door, Pho Brothers, that he smelled gas, thinking it could be coming from their restaurant.

“Also, they’d been up and running their stoves, but he was about to call it in, and he said that’s when the explosion happened,” he said.

Kristy Ramos, a manager at Denny’s Fashion said her business only suffered minor damage.

“There was some debris on the floor, but other than that, it looks like the store is in really good shape,” she said, “so I think we’ll be ready to do business soon.”

Businesses in the Fountains Plaza were given the approval to reopen Monday morning, according to Plantation Police.

Meanwhile, investigators surveyed the blast zone as they worked to find out what went wrong.

Mohammed and Scott returned to the mall on Sunday to take a look at the damage to their cars, only to discover they’d need a tow truck.

Mohammed said his silver BMW is most likely a total loss.

“All the windows are blown out, the front and back, and the top of the car is completely dented in, and everything inside the car is basically just hanging off,” he said.

However, Mohammed said he is fortunate he was not inside the vehicle when the blast took place.

“My car was parked right in front of the pizza shop, so it probably took a lot of the force,” he said.

Orange signs put up in the section of the strip mall where the blast took place warned business owners that it’s unsafe to go inside.

“The investigation is going to take a while because we have to really determine the actual cause,” said Gordon. “Everybody is anxious to hear, ‘It was an explosion, it was gas, it was this, it was that,’ but there are so many things that could cause an explosion.”

Gordon went on to say the investigation is a multi-agency effort.

“Our fire investigators with the fire department here, the police, fire investigators, Broward Sheriff’s Office Bomb and Arson is here, the state fire marshal and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) are all working together to try and find the cause,” he said.

TECO Peoples Gas provides natural gas to six businesses in the shopping plaza, including Pizzafire. A spokesperson for the company said they are working with investigators to determine the cause of the explosion.

They said that just before the blast, they got a call from a restaurant owner who reported smelling a gas odor.

TECO officials said their technicians did not find any natural gas leaks on Saturday.

The scope and scale of the seismic blast was felt for miles, triggering motion-activated home surveillance cameras.

“My condo shook, and I looked down, and I saw this big black smoke,” said area resident Kim Johnson.

The explosion left most of the mall unrecognizable.

Sunday evening, 7News cameras captured several cars that were still parked in the lot within the blast radius. Some of these vehicles were too damaged for owners to drive away in them.

Police allowed car owners to return to Market on University to retrieve their vehicles on Monday at 9 a.m.

“The windshield is completely cracked,” said Sandra Con, who was inside LA Fitness during the blast. “I’m not gonna be able to drive it.”

Witnesses, first responders and investigators said they are still stunned no one was killed.

“It’s amazing. Everybody was really lucky,” said Mohammed. “I thank God every minute right now, it’s just, the way that we’re able to have this conversation right now.”

“I’m glad nobody was seriously injured, and we’re here,” said Patel.

“We got very, very, very lucky with this,” said Gordon.

On Sunday, attorney Mike Morgan with Morgan & Morgan said the law firm has been retained by a victim of the explosion.

Morgan released a statement that read, “In addition to causing her physical injuries, the mental and emotional trauma caused by this experience can have a lasting effect. Initial reports indicate this was potentially caused by a preventable gas leak. We are working to uncover all of the facts — all of the potential acts, omissions or decisions — that led to this incident, as we seek justice for this victim.”

Officials said it could take days or even weeks to pin down the cause because they have to sift through all the rubble to find the source of the explosion.

“They literally start with an outer perimeter,” Gordon said as he explained the investigation process. “That’s kind of what this fence is defining — what the outer perimeter is. They literally walk in toward the center documenting every piece of debris that’s out there.”

When that tedious process is done, Gordon said work will begin to ensure the surrounding buildings are safe for investigators to enter.

“Once they have defined their investigative perimeter, they’ll start shoring up the structures and start protecting them to make sure there is no collapse,” he added. “As they do that, they can make it safe to enter deeper in the buildings.”

The Florida Crisis Response Team will be hosting a group crisis intervention at 9151 NW 2nd St., Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.

Those impacted by the explosion are encouraged to attend.

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