Gas company received call reporting smell of gas shortly before Plantation explosion

More than 20 businesses damaged in blast

By Saira Anwer - Reporter, Trent Kelly - Reporter, Madeleine Wright - Reporter, Amanda Batchelor - Senior Digital Editor

PLANTATION, Fla. - A Teco People's Gas spokeswoman confirmed Monday that the company had received a call reporting a smell of gas in the air shortly before an explosion occurred Saturday at a shopping plaza in Plantation.

She said the company was in the process of sending a crew out to assess the situation when the explosion occurred. 

"I had just gotten into work that morning and there was a smell of gas," Total Nutrition business manager Graig Foulks said.

Foulks said Total Nutrition is just a few doors down from where the explosion occurred. He said he walked to work Saturday and immediately smelled what he believed to be gas.

"When you work next to a restaurant, sometimes as they open up, when they start up the stoves, there is a brief smell and then it goes away. But it didn't go away," Foulks said.

Foulks said he immediately notified a worker at a neighboring Vietnamese restaurant, who was on the phone with Teco People's Gas moments before the blast took place.

"After everything happened, he said when he smelled it, and he was calling them, as soon as he got through, that's when it happened," Foulks said.

Teco People's Gas spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs confirmed the account, but stopped short of blaming the explosion on a potential gas leak. 

"Just a few minutes before the explosion happened, we did receive a phone call from one of the nearby restaurants, who reported the smell of gas in his establishment," Jacobs said. "Literally, we were in the process of dispatching a technician to come investigate that report of a smell of a gas when the explosion occurred."

Investigators, meanwhile, were back at the scene Monday.

While representatives from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were spotted in the area, the State Fire Marshal's Office is leading the investigation into what caused the blast at a shuttered pizza restaurant. 

Two days later, you could still see the impact it had on surrounding businesses and cars in the parking lot.

Investigators are still working to confirm what exactly caused the blast at the Market on University shopping plaza, although authorities said a ruptured gas line was discovered after they responded to the scene over the weekend.

"There were no gas leaks other than the area that was affected by the explosion," Jacobs told Local 10 News on Sunday.

Jacobs said the company is cooperating with investigators.

"Teco People's Gas has about a half dozen customers inside that shopping center and the location where the damage occurred -- that former pizza restaurant -- was a customer of ours," she said. 

Plantation Fire Department Deputy Chief Joel Gordon said it's too early to know for sure whether the gas leak is to blame for the blast.

"The assumption is, and everybody looks at it and says, 'Oh, it must be gas.' But we can't confirm that until we actually dig down and find the source," Gordon said.

A total of 23 people were injured in the blast, and many others had to leave everything behind to get out safely.

The explosion destroyed the former PizzaFire restaurant, which closed in December, and caused varying degrees of damage to more than 20 neighboring businesses.

"Gone. It's just basically gone," said Traci Leon, who owns Code Ninjas with her husband, Erick Leon.

The Leons' business sits next door to the former restaurant.

"We do coding with kids ages 7 to 14," Traci Leon said.

Code Ninjas was also destroyed in the explosion.

"I can't recognize anything. It's completely wiped out," Erick Leon said. "I'm just thankful that nobody was there."

The owners said Code Ninjas thankfully was closed for the Fourth of July weekend, otherwise it would have been full of children when the blast happened.

Other businesses, like an LA Fitness about 50 feet across the street, were full people during the explosion.

"My car is still in the garage, so, I'm pretty sure it's not drivable," LA Fitness employee Chris Scott said. 

Scott, who is a personal trainer at the gym, said he heard a loud boom Saturday and the whole building shook.

"Everything shook. The floor shook," he said. 

One woman said her son's friends were injured at the LA Fitness when the windows were blown out. 

"They had scratches on them, but they said that they were just traumatized big time," Heather Hall said. "You know, it's hard for them to sleep for a couple nights right now."

Several dozen people returned to the scene Sunday, looking to get their belongings and cars back that were left behind after the blast forced everyone to evacuate. Some people also came out on Monday to retrieve their belongings. 

Crews spent Sunday sealing off the site by installing a metal chain-link fence.

One of the 19 victims taken to area hospitals after the explosion remains hospitalized Monday. The other injured victims were treated at the scene.

The Plantation Police Department has announced that the Florida Crisis Response Team will be hosting a group crisis intervention at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Central Park, located at 9151 NW Second St.

The event is for anyone impacted by the explosion.

For more information about the event, call 954-797-2172.

Police said all vehicles left inside the scene will be removed on Monday. People with vehicles at the scene are asked to meet police officers at the north side of Charles Schwab at 1179 S. University Drive. Vehicles that are not drivable will be towed to A Superior Towing, which can be contacted at 954-424-8781.

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