Broward County

He was calling the gas company when the mall exploded, ‘but by then it was too late’

The roads were clear, the cleanup had begun and most nearby businesses had opened their doors Sunday. But the mystery behind the explosion that leveled a Plantation strip mall and injured 23 people remains.

“The investigation is going to take awhile,” said Plantation Fire Rescue’s deputy chief, Joel Gordon. “There’s so many things that can cause an explosion.”

Gordon said all but two of the 23 people people wounded by the explosion have been released from the hospital, and one man who was listed in critical condition Saturday has been upgraded to fair. Plantation police said they did not have names of the victims still being treated.

Clean-up crews walk through the parking lot at the Fountains Plaza, across the street from the explosion site in Plantation, Florida on Sunday July 7, 2019. Daniel A. Varela

Fire rescue officials have walked back from initial reports Saturday that it was a gas leak that caused a blast heard for miles around. The force blew out windows of shops and cars, ripped brick from buildings, caved in ceilings and left the dust-hazed scene looking like “a war zone,” as some witnesses called it.

In a Saturday statement, TECO Peoples Gas said technicians “found no natural gas leaks” in their system, although firefighters did report a ruptured natural gas pipe.

But tenants of nearby buildings distinctly remember smelling a strong odor of gas Saturday morning.

Graig Foulks, the 36-year-old manager of the Total Nutrition store next door to the assumed ground zero of the blast — a vacant store that used to be a pizza place — said he checked with the restaurant next door, Pho Brothers, to find the source of the smell.

He didn’t assume it came from the vacant storefront that once housed PizzaFire because he hadn’t seen anyone in the building in months, except for a person who stopped by briefly midweek.

One of the former owners of the now-closed pizza shop, Realtor Perla Burzstein, said PizzaFire closed in December but declined to answer any other questions. A representative for the shopping center didn’t answer phone calls Sunday.

Clean-up crews and authorities speak with business owners and people who left their belongings after the explosion, in the parking lot at the site of the explosion across the street from the Fountains Plaza in Plantation, Florida on Sunday July 7, 2019. Daniel A. Varela

Foulks warned Hiep Van, the Pho Brothers cook also known as “Chef Mo,” about the gas smell around 11 a.m. Van, 35, smelled the gas, too, and called his gas company right away.

“I was on the phone with TECO when it happened,” he said of the gas company. “I’m pretty sure he heard that. I told them to hurry up and send a technician, but by then it was too late.”

Cherie Jacobs, spokeswoman for Peoples Gas, confirmed that it was in the process of dispatching a technician when the blast happened and that the vacant former pizza place is one of its gas clients.

When the building exploded, Van and his staff ran from the building to safety. A picture from the security camera inside shows broken dishes all over the floor, takeout containers in disarray and parts of the ceiling on the floor.

Foulks and his friend Shawn Forester, who was mid-bite of a pancake when the explosion rocked the plaza, fled their store, too.

“We didn’t know if there was going to be a second explosion,” Forester said.

They saw a man outside, surrounded by first responders, with shards of glass deeply embedded in his leg and arm. He was in a puddle of blood.

Foulks and Van waited Sunday morning for official permission to check out their stores, but neither expected good news.

“I know the store is pretty shook up,” Foulks said. “I’m not sure how bad.”

Construction workers begin the cleanup process at the Fountains plaza mall in Plantation after a possible gas leak explosion leveled nearby buildings and injured 23 people. Alex Harris

Van, who was treated at urgent care later that evening for ringing in his ears and a tightness in his chest, said he doesn’t think his restaurant can reopen for at least five or six months. He wasn’t allowed inside to retrieve his valuables, including some gold statues he kept for good luck.

“The only reason they wouldn’t let people in is if it wasn’t structurally sound,” Gordon said.

The Market mall where the explosion occurred, flagged by an LA Fitness, likely won’t open again soon, Gordon said. Plantation Fire Rescue said a nearby family reunification center set up Saturday was closed before the day ended.

On the other side of the explosion, at The Fountains plaza mall, a construction company hired by the landlord was busy cleaning debris from the shattered storefronts, while tenants inside picked up screws and ceiling tiles knocked loose by the blast.

“All the pictures fell off the wall,” said Amanda Silvester, manager of the F45 Training gym. The blast was was so strong it wrenched some of the brick storefront away from the walls.

She and her husband, Ivan Santo, came early Sunday to clean up the gym and get it in shape to open Monday.

“Everything looks OK,” she said. “Nobody told us we’re not allowed to.”

Gordon confirmed the building was cleared to open for business Sunday.

Plantation police kept the scene of the explosion closed off Sunday morning, and there were a few cars left in the caution-tape-ringed parking lot. Their owners slowly trickled in to retrieve the vehicles, some with smashed windows and chunks of debris inside.

Debris is strewn about the parking lot in the Fountains Plaza, across the street from the site of the explosion that took place yesterday, in Plantation, Florida on Sunday July 7, 2019. Daniel A. Varela

Antonio Ferreira, 42, was working out at the LA Fitness Saturday morning when the blast happened.

“In my mind, seriously, I thought everybody was dead,” he said. “I thought it was a plane crash.”

He sprinted out of the building, under the collapsed ceiling, past the people bleeding and through the cloud of dust. He ran past his car, which he noticed had shattered windows and a hunk of debris on top of it.

“This could have been much, much worse,” he said. “It’s a miracle nobody died.”

Plantation Police announced on Twitter the Florida Crisis Response Team is hosting a group crisis intervention at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday at Central Park, at 9151 NW Second St., for affected members of he community.

Alex Harris covers climate change for the Miami Herald, including how South Florida communities are adapting to the warming world. She attended the University of Florida.