Forestville, MD – Prince George’s County residents are grateful that a natural gas leak and subsequent explosion did not have more catastrophic results.

Firefighters and EMS reported to the scene of a gas leak at the Penn Mar shopping center in Forestville just before 1:00 p.m. after calls came in from two businesses about a gas odor. “Firefighters could tell when they first got here, they could tell by the odor they were dealing with something a little bit more heavier than they usually deal with, with natural gas,” explained Mark Brady of the Prince George’s County fire department.

Once on the scene, emergency responders evacuated five of the six stores affected by the leak. The sixth store was vacant, and this, firefighters discovered, was where the gas leak originated. 45 people in all were evacuated to a safe area as firefighters discovered the leak behind the vacant store and contacted the Washington Gas Company to shut off the gas. Soon thereafter, just before 1:20 p.m., a fire was discovered inside the store.

Less than a minute later, the shopping center exploded.

Large plate glass windows blew shattered glass and other debris 60 to 70 feet into the front parking lot. It appears that the roof assembly was lifted off the building by the blast and then fell back down, and the rear brick and block wall was blown out completely.

The extent of the damage to the structure left observers marveling that everyone at the site survived. Three firefighters were inside the building when it exploded, but incredibly only one was hurt. The others saw the blast coming and dove for the ground, while the third escaped with second-degree burns.

Thanks to the quick evacuation of the building, none of the 45 people who had been in the mall were hurt. “We would not have been out. They made sure we got out,” said dentist Calvin Chambers, who was rushed out of his office by emergency responders.

Eight firefighters were injured: four were taken to the Washington Hospital Center Burn Unit, where two were treated and released. The other two had their condition upgraded overnight from “serious” to “good.” Another four firefighters and a Washington Gas employee also hurt in the blast were taken to other area hospitals, where they were treated and released.

The exact cause of the release of natural gas and the source of ignition remain under investigation. ABC 7 has learned that a third party, possibly another utility company, may have interfered with the gas line.

Prince George’s County Acting Fire Chief Eugene A. Jones arrived on the scene and surveyed the devastation and remarked, “As a Department we are thankful that the injuries our crews suffered are recoverable. As a community, we are fortunate that 45 lives were saved by firefighters doing their jobs. Overall, in consideration of the devastating destruction we are extremely fortunate that this was not a disaster.”

Damage to the 6 stores is estimated at $2.5 million.