UPDATED 08-26-21 at 9:04 p.m.
By Lee Shappell, wranglernews.com Digital Editor
and Joyce Coronel, Wrangler News Editor
An explosion and fire at a print shop in a West Chandler strip mall Thursday morning critically injured two people, seriously injured two others and prompted a massive response that included evacuations and gas and power shut downs.
The explosion blew the roof off of Platinum Printing, 4940 W. Ray Road, Suite 1, at the northeastern corner of Ray and Rural roads, sending debris as far as 100 yards across the parking lot, according to Keith Welch, a Chandler Fire battalion chief.
The situation was elevated to a second-alarm hazardous-materials response that brought 50 pieces of emergency apparatus and more than 100 firefighters to the scene, Welch said. Units from Chandler, Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix fire departments responded, as did crews from Southwest Gas.
Welch said that first responders found a natural-gas leak under the strip-center parking lot, however officials are not prepared to say what caused the explosion. That remains under investigation, according to Welch.
“We did find a gas leak, so they evaluated that and secured it and we are starting the investigative process,” Welch said. “It’s going to take a while to figure it all out.”
Southwest Gas issued a statement Thursday afternoon saying that “safety is our top priority and our crews have turned gas off to the area and are working with first responders to ensure the area is safe and secure. Our hearts are with those who were injured by this incident and we thank first responders for their quick response. Southwest Gas will continue coordinating with officials at the scene to ensure the area is safe and to help in any investigation.”
Traffic on Ray and Rural near the intersection was closed until early Thursday evening.
Also Thursday afternoon, the director of Valleywise Health’s Arizona Burn Center said in a briefing that the four victims, all young males, have second-degree burns ranging from 16 to 30 percent of their bodies. Two already have undergone surgery and are in the burn center intensive-care unit. The two others will need surgery, as well, for skin grafts, he said. Foster said that all are expected to survive and make a fully recovery, although it will be “a prolonged process.”
Names of the victims have not yet been released.
Foster said the injuries resemble flash burns that often are associated with an exploding gas.
“Something exploded. There was a big flash,” Foster said. “I’m not an expert on explosions but I’ve seen some photographs of the building. It’s not a building anymore. It’s just a hole in the ground. And the fact that anybody walked away from that is amazing to me.
“The injuries certainly are consistent with a flash, with something that exploded and burned very quickly and was very, very hot for a short period of time, some type of volatile flash, not like a flame.”
Chandler firefighters got the call at about 9:30 Thursday morning and upon arrival found the Platinum Printing roof fully collapsed and fire in the structure, according to Welch.
“En route, they were getting updated information that potentially there were four victims inside and they did find four victims on scene,” Welch said. “They removed them to a safer area, treated them and transported them to local hospitals. Two are in critical condition and two are in serious condition at the burn center.”
Welch said there were no other injuries and no extension of fire to other suites in the strip center, however, structural instability was found in walls of three suites west of the print shop, which is in the extreme eastern end of the center.
“So it was a significant explosion,” Welch said. “The inside of the building is completely destroyed, and if you get closer to the building, the walls have been pushed out.”
While the walls still stand, they belie the seriousness of the damage. Aerial views reveal nothing but a debris-filled crater where the print shop was.
Chandler Sunset Library, just east of the print shop, also suffered damage inside from the force of the explosion, according to Welch.
The library remains closed until further notice, city officials said. The public may continue to access library services, including the catalog, downloadable ebooks, and other resources 24/7 online at chandlerlibrary.org. Library patrons may return checked out items to any of the library’s three branches.
Maxwell Preschool Academy, at the opposite end of the center, was evacuated and none of the children were injured.
In all, approximately 15 businesses and 25 homes in the neighborhood were evacuated as a precaution, according to Welch. Power also was turned off in the area for about a half hour.
Corona del Sol High School, on Rural Road about a half mile north of the intersection, was not impacted, according to Welch. Megan Sterling, executive director of community relations for the Tempe Union High School District, said that the blast was close enough to the school that it was felt on campus, but far enough away that there was not a disruption to the school day or the need to evacuate.
Corona principal Nathan Kleve, however, sent an advisory to families saying that the TUHSD safety team had reviewed information and continues to monitor the situation.
“They have determined that there is no need to evacuate campus at this time. The situation has been contained and does not put our CDS community at risk in any way,” Kleve’s advisory said. “Please rest assured that your student is safe on campus and the school day will continue as normal.”
The explosion got the attention of the neighborhood.
Gary McKay, owner of McKay’s True Value, 4939 W. Ray Road, which is directly across the street from the explosion, said the noise reminded him of the time a vehicle drove right through his front door.
“There was a boom that shook the building,” McKay said. “It was almost like when that car ran into the building but even worse. It sounded like something landed on our roof, and so I immediately ran up here to the front. Then I ran and looked out the back door and there was nothing. I was standing outside and a customer was coming up to the store and said something happened across the street and that he saw the debris flying in the air. And then that’s when we found out that the building had exploded.”
A woman who works at a fabric store across the street from the blast, who did not want to be identified, said that she felt the impact of the explosion reverberate in her chest.
“A lot of dust fell from the ceiling and our door blew open. The building and the windows shook,” the woman said.
Karen Goetz, office manager at Arizona Community Church, 9325 S. Rural Road, said staff felt the blast at the church, at Rural and Knox roads, a half-mile north of the explosion and just across the street from Corona del Sol.
“I was coming up the hallway and I heard this loud thing, like somebody was at the door, but it was like the door was exploding or something. When I looked, there was nobody at the door,” Goetz said. “It sounded like the door moved on its own and then shut again. Then, (a coworker) came from the building across the way and I sat down and she said, ‘Did something funny happen a few minutes ago?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’
“It was like a bomb went off or something. We thought maybe it was a natural-gas explosion somewhere because it was like an atmospheric thing, where it changed the air pressure. It was strange. We all ran outside to see what it was because it felt like it was fairly close.”
Goetz said that no windows were broken nor was there any damage to the church.
“But it definitely moved all the doors that were unlocked,” she said. “We walked outside but couldn’t see anything that looked like it was on fire or anything like that. . . . We still didn’t see anything but there were tons of fire trucks going by. . . . I was really, really glad it wasn’t the library or the preschool. There’s a lot of stuff in that shopping center.”