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Title: Explosion at Newport News, Va., Mall Causes Some Damage, No Injuries

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News Publication date: 2000-04-28

Apr. 28--It may take a science textbook to finally explain the complex, explosive reaction that leveled three cinder block walls and virtually shut down the Patrick Henry Mall Wednesday morning. But, for now, one of the few certainties is the enormous magnitude of the blast, evident by the tons of shattered bricks and blocks firefighters hauled away as an investigation began Thursday.

Investigators have determined that some sort of gas built up in the room behind the Above Board surf shop and was ignited by "electrical activity." The room contained several fuse boxes that controlled the power for six stores, said Fire Marshal R. Lee Ware. One of the fuse boxes was blackened, suggesting "significant electrical activity," he said.

The source of the gas may have been some sort of electrical problem, but Ware refused to speculate how the gas was created, what kind of gas it may have been or how it was ignited. Investigators are exploring several theories, he said.

However, investigators have ruled out any criminal activity, such as a bomb, and Ware said it was not a natural gas explosion.

The explosion ripped off the top part of a two-story exterior wall that is one layer of block and one layer of brick. Because the top portion of the wall was destroyed, it may mean the gas was lighter than air. Or, the force of the explosion may have traveled up because it "was the path of least resistance," Ware said.

The room where the explosion occurred has only one door, which leads to a back parking lot facing Interstate 64. Two of the room's three inside walls were destroyed, one toppling cinder blocks into the surf shop's back office, burying the furniture. The other wall fell toward Waldenbooks.

The one wall left standing was near the blackened fuse box.

Crews also dug up the parking lot asphalt in several places so investigators could look for burned out wires or electrical contacts in the power lines. So far, they have not found anything "overly obvious," Ware said.

"I've worked other gas explosions," he said, "but nothing of this magnitude."

Everyone seemed to agree that employees and shoppers were lucky the blast happened at 3:45 a.m., and not during business hours.

"God was definitely smiling down on us," said Kelley Daspit, the mall's marketing director.

Hecht's and Dillard's were the only stores that were able to open on Wednesday, but most of the mall was open for business on Thursday.

Becky's Hallmark, The Wall, GNC, Fine's Men's Shop, Hungates, 20-20 Eye Care, Pacific Sunwear, Dep Shop and Ritz Camera were closed throughout the day because they had no electricity. Above Board and Waldenbooks were also closed for structural damage. A wall in the bookstore was shifted by the blast, dumping books off the shelves in the children's section.

Mitchell's Formal Wear and Reeds Jewelers had water damage, but they had their carpets cleaned Wednesday night and opened Thursday.

Health inspectors came in Thursday to inspect restaurants and the food court. Because the electricity had been down, there was spoiled food.

Otherwise, it was business as usual, said Allison White, the assistant manager at American Eagle Outfitters.

"Everything seems to be back to normal as far as customer attitudes, normal business, and employees aren't calling in," she said. "I haven't heard anyone asking about it. They look at it, but that's about it. It's not every day that part of the mall falls off."

Richard Chung, who manages CK Jewelers, a store near the explosion, said merchants were also calm Thursday.

"I don't worry much about the safety because this is a big mall and I don't think it could happen again," he said. "Just a few merchants are worrying about the news that it was an explosion instead of just an accident."

--Staff writer Suzanne White contributed to this story.

(c) 2000, Daily Press, Newport News, Va. Distributed by


-- (, May 03, 2000


There was a story on the local TV news last week about a house near a closed landfill exploding due to methane gas that leaked in thru a sump pump trench. A neighbor commented that the house has caught fire previously, and that another house on the block had blown up a few years before.

I wonder if this mall is located on or near a closed landfill?

-- K (, May 04, 2000.


Interesting question. I remember reading about the story you mention, but I never posted it. If I can find it again, I'll check it out.

Thanks much, Dee

-- (, May 04, 2000.

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