Federal Investigation of Strip Mall Explosion

Report cites ventilation, equipment problems

By Kelvin Robinson
|  Monday, Mar 22, 2010  |  Updated 9:15 PM EDT
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MoshPix: Explosion Destroys Stores at Strip Mall

Derrick Ward/WRC-TV

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Ineffective ventilation techniques and insufficient training contributed to the injuries of eight Prince George’s County firefighters last May, investigators said.

The Fireand EMS team responded to a Forestville strip mall for the report of a gas leak. When they arrived, they found a fire along the roofline and on an electric meter.

Rescuers successfully evacuated the civilians in the seven affected businesses before the blast sent fire and debris flying. Injuries ranged from third-degree burns to a sprained ankle.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) completed an investigation following the explosion. According to their report, an earlier explosion could have happened because of operational error.

The team set up a positive pressure ventilation fan at the front of one of the stores. But according to the report, with that much natural gas present in the store, the fan could have actually caused an explosion. The fan, however, was not functioning properly.

Investigators also reported that firefighters attempted to cut off power to the building by switching individual breakers off. However, the report says they should have cut off the main disconnect.

The NIOSH offered a list of suggestions to minimize the risk of similar future events:

  • Ensure standard guidelines for natural gas leaks are understood and followed.
  • Contact utility companies immediately to cut external supply/power.
  • Ensure gas-monitoring equipment is adequately maintained and that firefighters are routinely trained on proper use.
  • Ensure ventilation techniques are conducted after ignition sources are checked.
  • Ensure rapid intervention teams are staged at the onset of an incident.
  • Ensure that collapse/explosion control zones are established when dealing with a potential explosion hazard.

Fire Chief Eugene Jones says he will require volunteer and career firefighters to read the report and commence drills on their findings. He also asked his command staff to review the recommendations for further advice and compliance.

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