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Gas leak suspected in explosion that rocked South Florida shopping center, injuring 23

A firefighter walks through the remains of a building after an explosion on Saturday, July 6, 2019, in Plantation. Several people were injured after a vacant pizza restaurant exploded in the South Florida shopping plaza Saturday, according to police.  The restaurant was destroyed, and nearby businesses were damaged. [Associated Press]
A firefighter walks through the remains of a building after an explosion on Saturday, July 6, 2019, in Plantation. Several people were injured after a vacant pizza restaurant exploded in the South Florida shopping plaza Saturday, according to police. The restaurant was destroyed, and nearby businesses were damaged. [Associated Press]
Published Jul. 8, 2019

PLANTATION — Authorities suspect a gas leak as the cause of a booming explosion Saturday morning at a Plantation shopping center that injured 23 people.

But agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, along with the Broward Sheriff's bomb squad, were investigating the blast heard from miles away.

"We haven't ruled out anything yet," Plantation Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Joel Gordon said. "We cannot confirm that a gas leak caused this explosion. We suspect it was."

The source of the explosion was a former pizza restaurant, Pizzafire.

About a dozen neighboring businesses in the strip center sustained damage including shattered windows, collapsed walls, fallen shelves and broken equipment and furniture.

Nineteen people were taken to area hospitals for treatment, including two in serious condition who were brought to Broward Health Medical Center. One child was among those hurt, while four people refused treatment.

Gordon said first responders treated "what we call classic blast-related injuries," such as ringing ears and cuts and bruises from flying debris.

No broken bones were reported, but one man had a makeshift tourniquet to stop the bleeding from a shrapnel wound, Gordon said.

"When we arrived we found patients scattered all about the debris area," he said. "The injuries were not as severe as we would have thought they would be."

But there was a stroke of good fortune as a neighboring business, a computer learning store for children called Code Ninjas, was not open at the time. The store was destroyed in the explosion.

"We are fortunate to have been closed today and all our Ninjas, Senseis and Directors are safe," the operators posted on Facebook. "Our thoughts and prayers are now with all those families who were affected attending the other shops in the area."

The debris field stretched a few hundred yards. Dozens of vehicles parked nearby had shattered windows and body dents, and some airbags deployed from the blast.

Police Sgt. Jessica Ryan said no one was found trapped in the rubble.

Fire Rescue initially had trouble getting close to the scene because of debris blocking the access roads. A ruptured gas line was found in the rubble, Gordon said.

Amanda Buscemi said her pediatric dentistry practice, Super Smiles, was destroyed.

"My diploma and stuff was in the streets," said Buscemi, who recalled a gas leak a few months ago at the shopping center.

"People had to be evacuated from the building," she said.

Buscemi said her employees would frequent the closed pizza shop, Pizzafire, but it was rarely busy and only open for about six months.

The Broward Sheriff's Office bomb and arson unit joined state fire marshals at the scene. Representatives of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and a TECO Energy crew, joined the investigation.

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Witnesses said a vacant pizza restaurant appeared to be the source of the explosion.

Police say all stores and businesses in the area would be closed until fire officials determine it is safe to return.

Some onlookers meandered throughout the plaza as firefighters and police picked through a large debris field.

Just before the blast, Evan Hoffman, 47, of Davie, was working out with his wife, Stacey, at a neighboring LA Fitness.

"A huge, huge bang, thump, almost, explosion," he said. "It started shaking back and forth and the roof tiles started crashing down and the power went out."

"We saw Good Samaritans carrying the injured," Hoffman said. Some people had tourniquets on their leg, he said.

Michael von Friedrich, 48, of Davie, said he was in a Zumba class on the second floor during the explosion. The music was loud, but the group of approximately 30 all stopped and looked at each other.

"We all heard it and knew something didn't sound right," he said after the building was evacuated.

Sharif Mohamed, another LA Fitness evacuee, said he left his car behind — the BMW's front and back windshields were shattered, the hood was dented, and glass and debris were littered inside.

"The pizza building looked like ground zero," he said.

Carrie Reuter stood behind crime scene tape at the nearby Fountains Plaza, where her business, Motion Stretch, was supposed to open next week.

She said all four of her security cameras had blank images and she feared the extent of the damage.

"We'll see. An entire staff of people were getting ready to open," Reuter said. "They won't have jobs."

Erez Yacob, a stylist at the M. Evans Salon, said he was blow drying a client's hair when the explosion rattled the store.

"We heard a strong boom, and one second after, everything exploded in the shop and out in the street," he said, adding that the salon's glass windows blew out and all the shelves inside fell to the floor.

"It's crazy," Yacob said. "We thought it was a car or a bombing because everything (the building across the street) disappeared."

Lynn Kline, the salon's owner, said customers rushed to their cars, some with half-haircuts and foil in their hair still.

"We didn't know if there was going to be another explosion so we immediately grabbed customers and went out the back emergency door," she said. "We are so lucky no one was hurt."

While fire alarms sounded across the shopping center, the explosion was heard and felt for miles around.

Niko Davis, 12, was at home with his mom about three miles away when they heard a "boom" and heard the windows on their house shake.

"It was a loud explosion and you couldn't tell where it was coming from," Davis said.

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