Broward County

After the mall explosion, business owners worry about what will happen next

Police continue to clear debris days after an explosion in Plantation shook a shopping plaza

Police clear debris three days after a massive explosion leveled The Fountains shopping plaza in Plantation, Florida, on Tuesday, July 9, 2019. The explosion, which happened last Saturday, July 6, 2019, injured 23 and left a pizza parlor demolished.
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Police clear debris three days after a massive explosion leveled The Fountains shopping plaza in Plantation, Florida, on Tuesday, July 9, 2019. The explosion, which happened last Saturday, July 6, 2019, injured 23 and left a pizza parlor demolished.

For nearly a week, all Hemi Patel has thought about are the customers whose clothes were left inside the dry cleaning shop she has owned for over 14 years.

The clothes have been inside the shop since an explosion ripped through a Plantation shopping center over the weekend. The blast, possibly from a gas leak, injured 23 people, damaged more than a dozen shops and shut down one of the busiest commercial areas in suburban Broward County.

Since Sunday, Patel and her husband have not been allowed back inside Presto Cleaners 10 1013 S. University Dr., the store they co-own that’s just a few establishments away from where authorities believe the blast originated.

As state and local investigators work to determine what caused the sudden destruction, business owners and employees like the Patels are starting to worry about how long the inquiry will take and how to make ends meet in the meantime.

“All we’re told is that it is not safe to go inside the building,” said Patel, 44. “This is all we have, this is our livelihood. We don’t have other locations.”

Plantation fire officials have not officially said what caused the shopping mall explosion that affected about 16 businesses, after walking back initial reports of a gas leak at a now-closed pizza store called PizzaFire near an L.A. Fitness.

The state Fire Marshal is leading the investigation and authorities are still assessing the scene.

“My business is one of the only ones that has other people’s property in it. It’s very stressful to not be able to return that to people,” Patel said. “Right now we’re just waiting to get the OK to retrieve that stuff.”

IMG_Plantation_Explosion_2_1_SSG1CCDC_L477302293 (1).JPG
A gas explosion at PizzaFire, a pizza parlor across from the Fountains Plaza in Plantation, on Saturday, July 6, injured 23 people and caused the windows to blow out at LA Fitness. Matias Ocner

Patel said she was standing at the front of the store on Saturday morning right before she heard a deafening boom. Then, ceiling tiles and chunks of wood began to fly around her. Still disoriented, she found the door and managed to leave the store.

She said she was taken to the hospital that day because she had a hard time breathing and had bruises on her body, but was released shortly after.

The Patels, who also support a 14-year-old daughter, are beloved business owners in Plantation.

Michelle Fein, who lives in Plantation, has known the couple for about eight years, since their daughters first started doing gymnastics together.

When she heard about the explosion, she initially thought to help out by paying for the gymnastics class. But Fein quickly realized the damage was much more extensive and began a GoFund Me to raise money for the family. As of Wednesday, the fundraiser had yielded over $8,800.

“They have helped everyone in the community,” Fein said. “We just want to help her pay her bill so she doesn’t lose her house, and her car. ...They can’t do anything until they know whose fault this is.”

Whether the totaled businesses will be demolished is still unclear. Plantation Fire Chief Joel Gordon said the final decision would be up to the shopping plaza owner and the individual businesses.

But a big portion of the building that exploded “has been deemed unsafe,” said Siobhan Edwards, president of the Greater Plantation Chamber of Commerce.

“The community really has done an amazing outreach to try to help the businesses,” Edwards said.

On Tuesday night, the city of Plantation organized a crisis-intervention event to offer services for people affected by the blast. Edwards said the chamber has offered to help workers file for unemployment or move businesses to different locations.

“We had other locations in the city that had spaces available,” Edwards said. The neighboring Fountains Plaza, which had some damage but opened a few days after the explosion, was offering free or “deeply discounted” spaces for rent to relocate the damaged businesses, she said.

So far, no one has moved on the offer.

Other businesses, including Pho Brothers and Great Clips, have started fundraisers of their own.

Patel said although her dry-cleaning shop carries business insurance, it could be months until they know how much of their losses will be covered.

“We just don’t know anything,” she said. “It’s uncertainty. The fear of what’s coming, what’s going to happen.”

Bianca Padró Ocasio is a general assignment reporter for the Miami Herald. She has been a Florida journalist for several years, covering everything from crime and courts to hurricanes and politics. Her bilingual work telling the stories of the Puerto Rican community in Central Florida has been previously recognized by the Florida Society of News Editors and the Florida Sunshine State Awards.