The Columbus Dispatch • Thursday December 22, 2016 4:46 AM
Tom Dodge | Dispatch Firefighters battle a gas line blast on the city's West Side.
Jeffrey Blackburn smelled the gas inside the Domino's restaurant and went outside to check. He saw workers scampering away and “a big bulge and a crack” growing in the asphalt parking lot.
“The gas was just spraying out,” said Blackburn, a driver for the Domino's in the small shopping center at West Broad Street and South Hague Avenue. He piled his coworkers in his car and sped off.
Less than two minutes later, there were two explosions.
The pizza shop exploded, and flames fueled by the leaking gas continued to shoot 30 or more feet in the air from the shop and the hole in the parking lot for two more hours, witnesses said.
Columbus Fire Battalion Chief Steve Martin said a Fishel construction crew was using a boring machine to lay conduit underneath West Broad when a bit struck a high-pressure line.
The construction crew, which was boring from the north to the south side of West Broad, had consulted with authorities about the location of gas lines and was permitted to dig in the area, according to Columbia Gas of Ohio.
A worker told a 911 dispatcher that the crew had hit a “main” and that gas was leaking upward. Columbia Gas later determined it was a 6-inch distribution line on West Broad.
“It’s just blowing pretty good, and it’s close to a building,” he said in the call.
Later, another caller yelled “Domino’s has blown up!” She screamed for joy when told everyone was out of the building. Fire crews had just arrived.
Jerrol Cox was helping clean up after installing gutters on a nearby house when the blast knocked him back a step. “My clothes when ‘whoosh,’“ he said, pulling his jacket out.
Amber Mason was working at the Walgreens across West Broad when a customer came in and told her there was a gas leak across the street.
“Three minutes later, ‘Boom!” Mason said.
Afterward, firefighters using monitoring devices detected gas coming up through the ground and from sewers, prompting police to expand the safe zone, Martin said.
Fire crews were worried that gas was collecting in other buildings, which could have caused another explosion.
By 4:45 p.m., Columbia Gas crews had shut off a valve to the west of the shopping center and pinched off a supply pipe to the east, shutting off gas to the fire. Isolating the shutdown meant surrounding homes and business still had heat, Martin said.
The call on the Domino’s explosion came in about 2:20 p.m., Martin said.
At the Buckeye Ranch building, which provides behavioral health services to children and families, the receptionist got on the intercom and told about 30 people in the building to leave immediately. “We were coming out,” said John Hiller of Buckeye Ranch. “The first explosion came from the Domino’s. We were standing in the parking lot and they moved us to the hardware store, and they had a second explosion.”
Blackburn, the delivery driver, said a security guard was herding people out of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital primary care center and Buckeye Ranch site, which are in the shopping center with the Domino’s.
“He was just telling them to run,” Blackburn said. The security guard worked for Nationwide Children’s.
“That’s huge,” Battalion Chief Martin said of the warning. No one was injured by the blast and fire, Martin said, but one person running away fell and was hurt.
The Domino’s was destroyed along with a storefront that housed a staffing agency that moved in a couple months ago, said Nick Rees, president and chief executive officer for Buckeye Ranch, which owns the shopping center.
While Rees was waiting Wednesday night to look inside, firefighters found minimal damage in the Nationwide Children’s Hospital center, Buckeye Ranch offices and the Postal Service branch. But a Nationwide Children’s mobile clinic was damaged in the parking lot along with a couple of cars.
“Nobody got hurt,” Rees said. “That’s the main thing.”