Gas Leak Spread Quickly at Md. Shopping Center Before Erupting Into Fireball

Prince George's County emergency personnel respond to a 911 call on a gas leak. Some firefighters were walking into the building when the explosion happened. Audio by Prince George's County Fire/EMS Department (
By Aaron C. Davis and Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 9, 2009

After 18 years of fighting fires, Capt. Grady Valencis said it was reflex to turn away Thursday when he felt a gust of air rush toward the Prince George's County shopping center that had just been evacuated because of a possible gas leak.

A split second later, a massive explosion knocked him to the pavement and blew two nearby firefighters off their feet. Many of the 45 people who had fled the Penn Mar Shopping Center watched as the blast lifted its roof and sent glass and debris deep into the parking lot.

"I know how those guys in battle feel," said Valencis, who recalled the dazed looks on the faces of his fellow firefighters in the moments after the blast. "It was very surreal. What happens in three, four seconds seems to stretch on for a long time."

Yesterday, one volunteer firefighter remained hospitalized but in good condition as inspectors from several fire agencies and utility companies investigated how natural gas seeped into a vacant storefront, where it was apparently ignited by a spark from an electrical box. Some of those who were present said the blast was notable less for the $2.5 million in damage it caused to the shopping center in Forestville than for the marvel that everyone survived.

"If anything else had happened differently, I may have been walking into that building when the blast was triggered rather than being there to call 911 and help everyone get out," said Jeanette Zak, a volunteer at a medical clinic that was destroyed along with four shops. "When I think back over my day and how I dragged my heels leaving home, and every other minute -- it puts you in awe."

A little more than half an hour before the blast, there was no sign of anything wrong.

Zak had dropped by the Forestville Pregnancy Center to work for a couple of hours. But the office's computer system was down, and she wandered around looking for something to do. Soon, she noticed a slight whiff of gas.

"It was like a pilot light," Zak said. "I never would have noticed it if I was in the zone, working on the computer."

She said she walked toward the back of the center, where the odor was so strong it smelled like cleaning solution.

At 12:53 p.m., Zak called 911. An emergency dispatcher told her to leave the building. She and another volunteer, Catherine Monsour, began going door-to-door, alerting people in nearby shops and restaurants.

Less than two miles away, a bell went off at the county's Forestville fire station. Capt. Robert Rouse and several other veteran firefighters arrived at the scene and immediately noticed that the gas leak was unusual.

"They could tell right away that the heavy odor and how far it had spread was serious," said Mark Brady, spokesman for Prince George's Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

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