A natural gas leak is the suspected cause of an explosion and fire that destroyed a shopping center in Columbia, Md., early Sunday, fire officials said. The building was “probably totaled,” but there were no reports of injuries, they said.
The explosion, which could be felt several miles away, occurred shortly before 8 a.m. at 8865 Stanford Blvd., in a building that houses several small businesses and offices in a popular commercial district of Columbia, off Snowden River Parkway, according to Howard County emergency officials.
Emergency responders checking out reports of the smell of gas had evacuated the building just minutes before the explosion. Officials said it was fortunate the blast happened on a Sunday morning.
“If it had been a normal workday, the evacuation and the clearing of the area would have been a little bit harder, and we definitely would have had different circumstances,” Stephen Hardesty, battalion chief for the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services, said at a news conference.
Firefighters investigating the smell about 7 a.m. discovered a small crater about 10 feet long and a couple inches wide in front of the building with natural gas leaking from it, Hardesty said. They checked the building and immediately evacuated bystanders, backing up about 1,000 feet from the building.
“We were formulating a plan when the building exploded,” Hardesty said. “The building is probably totaled. . . . There is a lot of structural damage.”
The Lakeside Columbia building, a property managed by Holland Properties, has a gym, a coffee shop and small restaurants on the first floor. There are legal, medical and other professional offices in the building. A large portion of the L-shaped building is occupied by a Social Security field office.
Denise Weist, a spokeswoman for the county fire and rescue services, said officials are still assessing the damage and it would be an “extended operation” to determine what is repairable.
The building remained at risk of collapsing Sunday afternoon, authorities said. Hardesty said fire crews were working with building inspectors and the property owner to secure and stabilize the structure.
Hardesty said it was unclear what caused the gas leak, but fire investigators are working with the utility company, Baltimore Gas and Electric, to pinpoint the origin.
BGE issued a statement, saying that it received a call from the fire department early Sunday about a gas leak and that a utility crew member was on site when the explosion occurred. A spokesman said there had been no other reports of leaks or the smell of gas in that location.
“BGE crews have turned off gas service and are currently working closely with the fire department. Once it is safe to do so, BGE will investigate the cause of the incident,” the statement said.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) thanked first responders and offered the assistance of the Maryland Joint Operations Center and the state fire marshal in the investigation.
“This massive explosion in Columbia was felt in many of the surrounding communities, a shock to families across the area,” Hogan said in a tweet. “Thankfully, no injuries have been reported so far.”
Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (D) also praised the prompt response from firefighters to ensure the building was unoccupied and in setting up a perimeter after “multiple reports of hissing sounds coming from a large crack in the parking lot of the building.”
“Fortunately, because of their actions and because this happened on a Sunday morning when no one was inside the building, there are no reported injuries at this time,” Ball said in a tweet. He said the explosion should serve as “a reminder for us all to do our due diligence to ensure safety. If you suspect a gas leak or have any concerns, I urge you to get to safety and report it.”
The county’s economic development authority will have a team assisting displaced businesses and workers, Ball said.
“We will do everything possible to minimize the impact of this explosion on those who are affected by it,” he said.
Some business owners said they received alerts early Sunday after the explosion set off security alarms, and many rushed to the site. Suzanne Delica arrived to find her store, Clothes Mentor, in ruins.
“It is very heartbreaking,” said Delica, who left the corporate world and used all her savings to open the upscale women’s clothing resale shop two years ago.
“I am encouraged to know that it happened at a time when no one was there. Thank God,” she said. “But what do we do now? We have to start over.”
Delica’s store, like the other businesses, was slated to open at noon Sunday. The owners were instead trying to figure out their losses and talking among themselves about their next steps.
She said the store had a growing fall inventory in the backroom after two months of buying the seasonal clothes and shoes to launch this month. With the amount of destruction, Delica said she fears the recovery could be slow.
“At a time of a tragedy, like this, to know that the people in the community appreciate you being there is encouragement enough to just want to open your business again,” she said. “We are all devastated, but we are also encouraged by a community to do what we have to do to open.”
Rohit Chawla, owner and chef at the Indian restaurant Mango Grove, said he heard about the blast from some of his employees and quickly went to try to estimate the damage. From outside, he could only see glass damage, but he wasn’t allowed to go inside.
“We are all sad this happened. We are also thankful that nobody was hurt,” said Chawla, whose restaurant has been in Columbia since 1996, but at that location since 2011.
Other nearby buildings sustained minor damage from the blast, including broken glass, officials said. Immediately after the blast, a widespread power outage affecting businesses in the area was reported. As of early Sunday evening, BGE reported 22 customers remained without power.
A fire department photo from the scene showed a building partially collapsed and a fire outside the structure.
Some neighbors who live as many as five miles away said that they heard a loud boom about 8 a.m. and that homes shook.
Resident Shawn Webb said that he heard a “loud rumble” and that the drawers from a cabinet fell open. “I thought it was an earthquake at first,” he said.