WAYNE, Mich. – A family-owned furniture store in suburban Detroit exploded and collapsed in what appeared to be a natural gas explosion Wednesday, trapping three people in the rubble.
Rescuers pulled the store's owner from the debris and he was in critical condition, Wayne City Manager John Zech said at a news conference. Search and rescue teams continued to hunt for two others, who police said are employees at the William C. Franks store.
"They're dealing with a lot of debris," said Inkster Deputy Police Chief Hilton Napoleon, who was assisting other officers in below-freezing temperatures at the scene. "They've got to be careful so they don't cause any more explosions. You don't know if there are any other flammables in there."
Wayne Deputy Fire Chief Shawn Bell said rescue crews were dialing the cell phones of the people presumed buried beneath the rubble in the hope that the sound of the phones ringing would help locate them. Those efforts have not been successful. Bobcats and front-loaders also moved around the area.
Groups of firefighters entered the building four and five at a time, scraping away at the rubble using long poles with hooks on the end. Video footage shot from TV helicopters hovering over the scene showed dozens of rescuers working on and around the remains of the store.
"It's a hand-to-hand search looking for potential victims," Bell said, adding that rescuers are being careful for fear of further collapse.
Police evacuated homes and businesses near the store in Wayne, some 15 miles west-southwest of Detroit. The massive blast at about 9 a.m. was felt as much as a mile away. Windows were shattered at nearby businesses. The one-story once-sprawling building was reduced to a pile of wood, crumbled drywall, and twisted metal with broken bits of furniture scattered about. A bureau drawer could be seen.
"It was like 'ba-boom!'" said 47-year-old Lisa Johns, who rushed to the furniture store from her home nearby.
Johns said she was watching television in bed when she felt the explosion. "It sounded like a bomb," she said. "The power went off and came back on two or three minutes later."
"We're pretty sure natural gas is involved," Consumers Energy spokeswoman Debra Dodd said.
The utility received a call of a possible gas leak in the area several hours before the blast and a worker had been trying to track down the source when the explosion took place, Dodd said. She said the gas main to the building was shut off Wednesday morning and another line in the area was closed later in the day after utility crews found a second leak Wednesday afternoon. The nearby city hall and additional homes were evacuated as a precaution because of the second leak.
Jennifer Gietzen, 36, who co-manages an auto repair shop with her husband about a block from the furniture store, said the smell of natural gas was "overwhelming" right after the explosion.
When she and her husband got to the scene, there was a small fire burning in the middle of what once was the store and water spewing, perhaps from a burst pipe, onto a nearby truck. Three hours later, the building still was smoldering.
University of Michigan Hospital spokeswoman Christy Barnes told The Associated Press that Paul Franks had been taken to the Ann Arbor facility after the explosion and that he is in critical condition. Zech said Franks' father founded the store.
A person who was driving by the store when it exploded was being treated at Oakwood Annapolis Hospital and was in stable condition, hospital spokeswoman Paula Rivera-Kerr said.
Store delivery worker Russell Brothers, 52, lives about half a mile away. He wasn't scheduled to work Wednesday but drove in to see what happened after the explosion.
Brothers said he has worked at the store for 18 years and said Franks "treats everybody like family."
He said the missing people are a store secretary and a salesman, whose cars were parked outside the store.
Brothers and saleswoman Deanna Dow were helping authorities pinpoint where in the building the missing workers might have been when the explosion occurred.
"We're just shaken up," said Dow, who was scheduled to start work at noon.
Associated Press writers Jeff Karoub in Wayne and Corey Williams, David Aguilar and Randi Berris in Detroit contributed to this report.
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