Little Rock, AK – An investigator suspects a gas leak caused the explosion that destroyed a building at a southwest Little Rock apartment complex Thursday and left a half-dozen people hurt and 18 families homeless, but he said he may never be able to prove it.

“The gas came from inside the building,” Barry Burke, assistant fire marshal for the Little Rock Fire Department, said Friday afternoon. “It formed a fuel cloud. When it lights from an ignition source, it goes off like a bomb.

“ That’s what we believe happened, but we can’t prove it. But it’s my opinion. Due to the devastation, I can’t provide physical evidence to back up my opinion.”

However, Burke said, he will be talking to residents of Auxora Arms Apartments over the next several days, interviews that could yield more information.

Only one of the injured residents remained hospitalized Friday, and the woman had good reason: She gave birth to a 7-pound baby in “perfect condition,” Burke said.

Another resident who was treated and released from the hospital will return for an operation on his back, Burke added.

Meanwhile, crews on Friday began clearing the debris from the explosion at the complex at 9101 Auxor Road, a block east of Base Line and Stanton roads. Utility workers worked to restore natural gas service to the remaining apartments in the 100-unit complex.

A pressure check of the pipes that carry natural gas to the complex showed no sign of a leak, said Greg Loarie, an engineer with the pipeline safety office of the Arkansas Public Service Commission.

That successful test, completed shortly before noon Friday, allowed utility crews to begin reconnecting gas lines to the undamaged buildings in the complex. Residents had been without heat since shortly after the explosion Thursday night, when natural gas to the complex was shut off.

“They had a cold night last night,” Burke said.

The explosion cracked a window in Barbara Richmond’s apartment. That didn’t bother her as much as the lack of heat, which she said Friday would persuade her to stay in a hotel if it wasn’t back on by Friday night.

“If they get the heat going, I’ll be fine,” she said.

The American Red Cross of Greater Arkansas is sheltering 18 families left homeless from the blast, a large enough number to label the case a Level 2 emergency, said Brigette Williams, a spokesman for the relief agency.

“It’s on par with the Dumas tornado,” she said, referring to the Feb. 24 twister that destroyed two dozen businesses and 100 homes in the Delta town of 5, 000.

As a result, the Red Cross is issuing an urgent appeal for donations to help cope with the costs — an estimated $ 15, 000 — for emergency aid and to help replenish the organization’s Family Crisis Fund.

“This won’t be our last disaster,” Williams said. “And we want to be ready for the next one.”

Burke was among the scores of workers, residents of the Auxora Arms Apartments and passers-by who surveyed the devastation in the cold light of day Friday and walked away marveling that anyone made it out of the rubble alive.

“It’s just totally amazing, isn’t it?” he said. “It’s a miracle. The explosion hit this building like a tornado went through it.”

Damage to Building G and an adjacent apartment building and the contents amounted to an estimated $ 850, 000, Burke said. The explosion demolished the eight-apartment, two-story brick building and rendered the other building uninhabitable. Two apartments in a third unit suffered damage significant enough for Little Rock code enforcement officers to also post them as unsafe. Another apartment incurred little more than a broken window.

Also, four cars parked in a lot near the demolished building suffered smashed windshields and other damage.

Brittany Stewart, 21, was among people checking on their apartments Friday. She hadn’t moved in yet, though she has a key to the apartment and learned of the explosion through televised news reports Thursday night.

“At first I thought it was my building,” Stewart said.

She still intends to move in but not right away. She said she wants to make sure another explosion isn’t going to happen.

“I wouldn’t move in it today,” she said. “It’s kind of scary.”

Curtis Spaight, 25, spent the afternoon helping his girlfriend Maria Neely, 18, move belongings out of her apartment, which was on the second floor of the heavily damaged, but still standing, building. They had to negotiate around workers, including one using a front-end loader to clear debris and place it in a large metal bin.

The previous night, Spaight was cooking a meal while Neely was with her 2-month-old baby Tamariyana in the living room that faces the building that exploded.

“I heard a boom,” Spaight recalled. “The windows shattered. I thought someone was shooting. My girlfriend was screaming. I looked out, and this building was completely gone. I said, ‘Dang. ’”

Neely was among those the Red Cross is assisting by putting her up in a hotel for up to six days.

The complex is owned by American Community Developers Inc. of Detroit, which purchased the 104-unit complex earlier this year.

Gerald A. Krueger founded American Community Developers in 1988. The company mostly is involved in acquiring and rehabilitating housing developments and “the revitalization of the properties from both the owner’s and tenant’s perspective,” according to a profile of Krueger on the Web site of the Michigan Housing Authority.

The company now operates 6, 000 units in nine states. Of the 47 properties, 39 include some form of federally insured loans.

Krueger is listed as the incorporator and organizer of the Auxora Arms 2007 LLC, which filed its articles of incorporation in August, presumably as part of the purchase of the apartment complex. That same month, the new owners had the complex inspected. The inspection included a test of its gas lines, Burke said.

Neither the apartment manager nor a representative of the management company would comment. Krueger was unavailable Friday afternoon, according to a woman who answered the telephone at the company’s Detroit office.

Meanwhile, Auxora Arms was due for a city code inspection, but one hadn’t been scheduled yet, said Andre Bernard, Little Rock’s director of housing and neighborhood programs, who was at the complex Friday. City officials are supposed to inspect rental properties every two years.

The city hadn’t received any complaints about gas smells, he said, and there hadn’t been any recent citations.

Little Rock last inspected Auxora Arms in June 2005, after residents organized a meeting with city officials and complained about problems with crime, malfunctioning appliances, pest infestations and sewage leaks.

At the time, inspectors found 54 apartments with “life safety” violations, such as loose parts on air-conditioning units and missing connectors for garbagedisposal wires. The inspection, according to a July 19, 2005, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article, also found 28 apartments with less serious violations, such as holes in the walls and a sink that wasn’t securely fastened to a wall.

A 2002 city inspection gave the complex passing marks, and a December 2004 inspection by the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development showed that Auxora Arms had satisfactory living conditions, despite finding health and safety problems that were corrected two days later.

Mayor Mark Stodola said Friday afternoon that it was too early to know whether Thursday’s explosion had anything to do with code enforcement issues. But based on residents’ accounts in Friday’s newspaper that they often smelled gas and that the explosion might be linked to gas, Stodola urged anyone smelling gas to call the gas company right away.

“That’s something you don’t ever want to take for granted,” he said.

Natural gas is odorless and colorless, but gas companies add a chemical to gas to give it a “rotten egg” smell so people can detect leaks.

Patricia Campbell, a spokesman for HUD’s regional office in Fort Worth, said the agency has a contract with the owners of the complex to provide housing to recipients of Section 8 federal funds.

Under the contract, the apartments are inspected periodically by HUD inspectors, who make sure the apartments meet housing-quality standards, Campbell said.

The Auxora Arms complex has been inspected five times in the past seven years and has passed each of those inspections, she said, adding that the last inspection was in November 2006. The inspections covered the overall grounds as well as a representative sampling of the units, Campbell said.