IL – An explosion Thursday that blew part of the roof off a commercial building in north suburban Waukegan’s business district injured eight people, authorities said.
The midday blast in the 1900 block of Grand Avenue may have been caused by a natural-gas leak in one of the building’s storefronts, authorities said.
“It appears to be a gas explosion at this time,” Police Chief Bill Biang said after firefighters raced to the scene of the explosion and police closed traffic around the site for several hours.
Rescue workers conducted an exhaustive search of the building’s debris after reports that not everyone made it out of the building. Although no additional victims were located Thursday, authorities planned to sift through the rubble Friday to make sure no one was missed.
“We’ve had 99.9 percent of the building checked by our search and rescue team,” Deputy Fire Chief Dan Young said late Thursday. “Tomorrow we will start to take the building apart and check for additional people.”
Adding to the initial confusion, mannequins from a tuxedo-rental store were blown into the street, causing some witnesses to believe they were seeing headless bodies.
Officials at North Shore Gas Co., the building’s supplier, also planned to investigate, including a review of its service history at the building, said company spokeswoman Bonnie Johnson.
“That question, and if we’d been doing any work at that building, will be looked at as part of our investigation,” she said.
Authorities think the explosion originated in a rear area of Cleopatra’s Unisex Hair Salon, 1916 Grand Ave., where rescuers extricated two victims — a man and a woman — from beneath a pile of rubble as firefighters from Waukegan and surrounding communities contained a fire that damaged two other businesses.
The two people, whom authorities did not identify, were taken to Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan.
Three others were treated at Vista with less severe injuries, and another three were treated at the scene, authorities said. Doctors planned to hospitalize one of the injured overnight, said Vista spokesman Adam Beeson, who did not identify the victim.
Isabel Gonzales, 27, of Waukegan, was in the salon having her hair colored when the blast occurred, said her sister-in-law Odalys Palomo.
“She heard the explosion, and when she awoke she was under rocks,” said Palomo, who also said she went to Vista when she learned Gonzales had to be hospitalized overnight. “Her back is hurt. She’s in a lot of pain. I told her, ‘You’re very lucky.'”
Gonzales also said that when she arrived at the beauty salon, she noticed it was chilly inside, Palomo said. “She said a man was helping her in back with her hair, and they were talking about [the temperature] and they were checking on it,” Palomo said.
Fire officials said they had heard no reports of people smelling natural gas before the explosion. However, some people who work near the building told reporters they thought they had smelled gas.
Antonio Cruz, 23, of Waukegan, was in the middle of a haircut when the explosion occurred.
“All the ceiling came down and all the walls came down,” Cruz said through an interpreter, his friend Antonio Larrondo. “The ceiling hit his head. Everyone started to scream, and they all ran outside.”
The blast could be felt blocks away.
“The whole building shook,” said Constantinos “Gus” Roiniotis, who runs the Paragon Restaurant about a block away. “I thought someone [driving] hit the building.”
Added Lamont Taylor, who lives near the building: “It looked like a wrecking ball hit it.”
Officer witnesses blast
Mike Sellers, a police officer who happened to be driving by the hair salon at the time of the blast, witnessed the explosion and called police before helping rescue three people from the Tuxedo World shop next door.
“The roof blew up, and the front windows blew out,” he said. “I saw a bunch of smoke and I heard a whoosh” as the building’s roof collapsed.
“It lifted the roof off of the building, then set it down,” said Young, the deputy fire chief. “Then the walls collapsed inside.”
Magdi Hussein, 29, who works at a dollar store across the street, said he heard an explosion and the windows of his store simultaneously blew out.
He said he went outside and saw the fronts of the three stores opposite were gone, and merchandise littered the street.
“I saw dolls that you put tuxes on,” Hussein said. “I thought maybe a bomb was thrown in the block.”
Mannequins seemed real
The flying mannequins from Tuxedo World were believed to be people by several witnesses, creating an initial sense of panic among onlookers, authorities said.
Rebekah Podyma and her husband, Gary, own the Living Foods Pantry directly across from the strip of businesses.
Rebekah Podyma was in the back of the store on the phone with a friend when she heard the explosion.
“All of a sudden, I hear a big boom. I thought it was a bomb. I see everything blowing across the street, flying toward us, and dust,” said Podyma, who huddled with other residents at the Paragon after the explosion. “The mannequins out of Tuxedo World were coming out into the street.”
Gary Podyma said he saw the mannequins “tumbling in a dark cloud.”
“It looked like a body without a head,” he said.