COLUMBIA, Md. (WJZ/AP) — Officials say they are thoroughly investigating what caused the gas explosion at a Columbia business center Sunday morning.

Gas mains near the building in the 8800 block of Stanford Boulevard have been inspected to ensure the public’s safety, but the building will be closed for an indefinite amount of time as the investigation continues, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said.

BGE Finds No Issues With Gas Equipment After Explosion Destroys Part Of Columbia Shopping Center

“It was so powerful it could be heard in communities many miles away,” said Ball in a statement.

WHAT WE KNOW

  • The gas explosion happened just before 8 a.m. Sunday in the 8800 block of Stanford Boulevard in Columbia, Maryland.
  • Officials are still looking to determine the cause and origin of the gas explosion.
  • The fire happened in the crack in the parking lot. Most of the damage in the building is from the blast.
  • 22 businesses were impacted by the explosion.
  • No injuries were reported.

Twenty-two businesses were impacted by the gas explosion around 8 a.m. which badly damaged the office complex and shopping center Sunday morning, ripping away part of the facade and exposing twisted metal, authorities said.

On Monday, Howard County officials are trying to help employers find temporary spaces for their businesses so that their employees can continue to work as the investigation continues. They are also letting people gather their belongings and assets from inside the building with escorts.

“I have mobilized our team from the Howard County Economic Development Authority to assist those businesses and works who may find themselves displaced by this event,” Ball said. “We will do everything possible to minimize the impact of this explosion (on) those who are affected by it.”

 

TIMELINE OF EVENTS

Deputy Fire Chief John Jerome said fire crews responded to the building an hour before the explosion after a fire alarm went off and found a large crack in the parking lot due to an apparent natural gas leak.

When fire personnel arrived, they immediately evacuated everyone from the surrounding area and made sure the building was vacant. When they went inside they were found dangerous levels of natural gas.

The subsequent explosion ripped away a significant part of the facade, scattering debris.

“It was so powerful it could be heard in communities many miles away,” said Howard County Executive Calvin Ball in a statement.

The origin and cause of the leak remain under investigation by the fire marshal’s office.

“I think we’re all thankful that there was no loss of life on this incident,” Jerome said.

BGE officials said Monday they are fully committed to understanding the cause.

“This was an extremely dangerous event,” said BGE’s Aaron Koos. “It remains a very difficult situation for the businesses involved and are working closely with investigators.”

Officials said there is still equipment they cannot examine due to access issues with the building.

BGE offered their preliminary report during a press conference Monday.

  • 6:55 a.m. —  BGE receives a call from HCFRS about the gas leak.
  • 7:15 a.m. — BGE employee responds to assist — taking gas readings and creating a safety zone and determined a plan to turn off gas and power.
  • 7:58 a.m. — The blast occurs. The responding BGE employee is uninjured. He was examined by emergency personnel on site, but released with no injuries.
  • 8 a.m. — After the explosion, additional crews arrived to help turn off the gas.
  • 10 a.m. — Gas was turned off.

Koos said they reviewed calls for gas odor calls for the site, but there were no recent calls and none in the last year at this site. There was a call in Feb. 2018 from one of the restaurants in the building and that was inspected and resolved.

“We also reviewed the inspection history for the mains and services in this area,” Koos said, noting the yearly inspection occurred in July 2019.

On Sunday, BGE also inspected gas mains and services along Snowden Parkway, Magaw Road, Dobbin Road and Little Patuxent Parkway for leaks and none were found. The also canvassed surrounding buildings and found no gas leaks or issues. They also tested gas levels and it was normal.

Gas and power remain off in the Ascend One building. Services have been returned to nearby buildings.

‘ONE OF THE WORST EXPLOSIONS’

Stephen Hardesty, the battalion chief of the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services, said the time of day played a major role in the lack of injuries, and he described it as one of the worst explosions he’s seen.

“The building is at risk of collapsing, so we’re working with some building inspectors and the property owner to figure out what our next steps are to secure the building and help out as much as we can with the investigation that’s going to ensue with this,” Hardesty said.

Gov. Larry Hogan thanked first responders for being on the scene within minutes. The governor said the Maryland Joint Operations Center and the State Fire Marshal have offered their full support and assistance.

“This massive explosion was felt in many of the surrounding communities, a shock to families across the area,” Hogan said in the tweet. “Thankfully, no injuries have been reported so far.”

Officials thanked all the teams that worked together to make sure the public remained safe during the event.

WHAT’S NEXT

Fire officials will work with businesses to recover important assets from the building. Those employers will be escorted into the building.

Among the business owners impacted is Rohit Chawla.

“Buildings can be rebuilt; lives cannot,” he said.

The normally-bustling building was a place where people got together for coffee, a fitness class or to take care of official business at a Social Security office.

“There’s usually a lot of people here on a weekday,” said Sharlene Mead, who works down the street.

Luckily, that wasn’t the case early Sunday morning.

“I guess we’ll just count our blessings,” Chawla said.

Howard County businesses and employees affected by the explosion should call 410-313-6517 to schedule an escort into the building for belongings. Anyone entering the building must wear hard hats and safety glasses, provided by the fire department, but people should wear long-sleeved shirts and pants and closed shoes (no flip-flops or sandals).

Ball reminded residents to report when they smell the odor of gas to BGE immediately.

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Rachel Menitoff

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