21 injured in gas explosion at US mall

A firefighter inspects an affected area after the blast.
A firefighter inspects an affected area after the blast.PHOTO: REUTERS
Firefighters inspect an affected area after the blast.
Firefighters inspect an affected area after the blast.PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Police officers guard the perimeter around the area where the explosion occurred.
Police officers guard the perimeter around the area where the explosion occurred.PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Rescue sources are seen in an affected area after the blast.
Rescue sources are seen in an affected area after the blast.PHOTO: REUTERS
Debris is seen in a parking lot after the explosion.
Debris is seen in a parking lot after the explosion.PHOTO: REUTERS

MIAMI (AFP, NYTIMES) - A powerful explosion from a suspected gas leak ripped through a shopping mall in Florida on Saturday (July 6), injuring 21 people, the fire department said.

The explosion sent debris flying across the carpark of the Fountain Plaza shopping centre, damaging an LA Fitness gym, numerous cars and blowing holes in neighbouring buildings in the city of Plantation, about 50km north of Miami.

“We got our workout in, picked up the kids, walked out, got in the car, drove away, and as we drove away, everything exploded. It was a pretty crazy scene,” said Jessi Walasheck, who witnessed the explosion.

Deputy fire chief Joel Gordon told reporters two of the injured were in serious condition after the blast, one of whom had potentially life-threatening injuries.

“We found patients scattered all around the debris area,” he said, but added that the injuries generally “are not as severe as what we thought they would be”.

His department initially called it a gas explosion and Gordon said ruptured gas lines were found in the debris, but the cause of the blast has not been confirmed. 

No one has been reported missing.  “As bad it was, it could have been a lot worse,” he said.

Photos on US news outlets showed a large field of debris strewn across the carpark of the shopping centre.

A major avenue running past the mall was shut down as a rescuer aided by a dog combed through the wreckage.

Daniel Hubert, 20, had been working out at the fitness centre when he said he felt the building shake moments before he heard the explosion.

“A lot of the ceiling started to fall and the weights were shaking from the shock of the explosion,” Hubert said.

“Everyone was running around. It was a lot of chaos.”

As many as 300 people had started running for the emergency exits, he said.

“When I was leaving, the police were telling everyone to vacate the premises,” Hubert added.

“My truck windshield was cracked, and the explosion literally opened my truck door. A lot of cars were totalled.”

Hubert said that about half the LA Fitness centre’s exterior was destroyed and that the restaurant across from it was severely damaged. The only thing that remained standing were the walls, he said.

“I had friends two to three miles (3.2km to 4.8km) away, and they said they thought there was an earthquake,” Hubert said.