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Gas problem may have led to deadly blast in Minneapolis: fire chief

Emergency workers stand outside an apartment building which was destroyed by an explosion and a fire in Minneapolis January 1, 2014. REUTERS
Emergency workers stand outside an apartment building which was destroyed by an explosion and a fire in Minneapolis January 1, 2014. REUTERS

By David Bailey

MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - Investigators are looking at a gas leak as a potential cause for an explosion and fire that gutted a Minneapolis apartment building on New Year's Day, killing at least one person and injuring 14 others, officials said on Thursday.

The cause of the explosion and fire in the three-story building that had a grocery store on the ground floor and 10 apartments remained undetermined, but witnesses have told investigators they smelled gas before the blast, Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel told a news conference.

Fire officials said a body was found on Thursday in the structure after crews began the slow process of removing debris. Two people were unaccounted for, officials said.

Investigators believe the explosion happened on the second or third floor. Fire officials added that it could take weeks to determine a cause and it is possible that a cause for the explosion and fire might never be found.

"We are sort of focusing more on the issue of a potential gas-type scenario," Fruetel said, adding that witnesses had reported gas-like odors like when a pilot light on a gas stove goes out, or other natural gas-like smells.

The multiple reports of those types of smells have led investigators to focus in that direction for a cause of the explosion and fire, Fruetel said.

CenterPoint Energy spokeswoman Rebecca Virden said no gas odors or leaks were detected on CenterPoint's distribution system in the area, which is fairly new.

The building was built in 1886 and was in an ethnic community of mainly Somali immigrants near the West Bank campus of the University of Minnesota. The roof and upper floors collapsed leaving unstable ice-caked exterior walls and rubble.

Fourteen people were transported to hospitals after the fire.

On Thursday, three people were in critical condition and six in satisfactory condition at Hennepin County Medical Center. One person was in serious condition and one in good condition at University of Minnesota Medical Center Fairview.

Building occupants were seen leaping or falling from the windows after the explosion and rescue crews said flames shot 20 feet above the windows.

Firefighters were forced to withdraw from the building and battle the blaze from the exterior because of the heavy flames and concerns the structure could collapse.

(Reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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