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No additional victims in Harrisonburg blast, officials say

'My head hit the wall... I thought something crashed into the building'
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Posted at 10:24 PM, Oct 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-18 22:59:44-04

HARRISONBURG, Va. -- Fire officials have determined there are no additional victims from a weekend explosion and fire that injured five people in Virginia, the city of Harrisonburg announced Sunday night.

Two people were flown to University of Virginia’s medical center in serious condition after the explosion and fire rocked a strip mall Saturday morning, officials said. A message left Sunday with the medical center was not immediately returned.

The three other victims sustained non-life-threatening injuries.

“The Harrisonburg Fire Department has completed its secondary search of the Miller Circle fire site, and has determined that there are no additional individuals on site who were harmed by the incident. Searches are now complete,” the city tweeted Sunday.

The blast was so strong that some residents reported their homes shaking. Nearby businesses were forced to close
due to damage, TV station WHSV reported.

The city said an investigation into the cause is ongoing. Officials said Saturday it would likely take several days.

JMU student saw 'big mushroom cloud' moments after blast

A James Madison University student said he felt the power of the explosion that leveled a strip mall and left five people, including three JMU students, injured Saturday morning near downtown Harrisonburg.

Matthew Jenkins, a sophomore at the university, said he was startled not long after he woke up.

"I just heard a loud bang and I was thrown into my wall," Jenkins recalled. "My head hit the wall and I thought that something had crashed into the building, so I looked outside and... I saw a big mushroom cloud."

Fire crews were dispatched around 8:30 a.m. to reports of an explosion along Miller Circle just off South Main Street, according to Harrisonburg officials.

When firefighters arrived, they found smoke and flames coming from several businesses in the strip mall as well as two victims outside of the structure, Harrisonburg Fire Chief Matt Tobia said.

"There was a barber shop, there was a vape shop, there was a music recording studio and there was a bakery,” Harrisonburg Communications Director Michael Parks said.

Two people with serious injuries were flown to UVA Medical Center. At last check Saturday evening they were in stable condition, according to city officials.

Parks said it wasn't immediately clear if those victims were affiliated with one of the center's businesses.

Fire crews also said three JMU students were injured.

“They just so happened to be here at the time and they suffered minor injuries, likely from debris,” Parks said.

The university said in a Facebook post that the three students from the school's Army ROTC program had been taking part in a 10-mile race were they were injured. The building where the blast occurred was about 30 yards (27 meters) from the race's start and finish line, the school said.

One of the students was hospitalized but was expected to be quickly released, JMU said. Two other students were treated at the scene and released, according to the post.

The strip mall was a “total loss,” according to Parks, and damage was also reported to other structures.

Although Gov. Ralph Northam tweeted Saturday morning that state emergency personnel had been deployed to the area after what he called a gas explosion, Tobia said the cause was under investigation.

But officials said there is no indication of foul play.

“So certainly this is unexpected," Parks said. "And as we seek to find out what was the cause, we hope that people will keep an eye out on things like this take whatever precautions are necessary to make sure that similar situations don’t happen in other places of the city."