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Columbia explosion aftermath: Destruction of some businesses leaves owners devastated

The morning after an explosion rocked a Columbia office complex and shopping center, authorities shared more details about the blast.

The morning after an explosion rocked a Columbia office complex and shopping center, authorities shared more details about the blast and breathed a collective sigh of relief that no one was injured.

“This was an extremely dangerous event,” said Aaron Koos, a spokesman for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., at a news conference Monday.

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A reported 22 businesses were affected by Sunday’s explosion, which originated with an 8- to 10-foot crack in the business center parking lot and caused extensive blast damage to the building, officials said.

Howard County firefighters evacuated the building and area before the explosion around 8 a.m. after a Social Security Administration employee reported smelling natural gas about two hours earlier. Minor damage also was done to the Ascend One building nearby. No one was injured, and the cause of the blast remains under investigation, officials said Monday.

Officials continued working Monday to determine which areas of the building were safe to enter. County engineer Bob Frances said much of the damage appeared cosmetic and non-load-bearing. Howard County Deputy Fire Chief John Jerome said he was unsure whether the building would need to be torn down.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball extended his thanks during the news conference to everyone who acted quickly.

“While yesterday may have shaken Howard County ... we promise to rebuild," he said.

County fire officials Monday afternoon allowed business owners and employees to access portions of the Lakeside Office building for the first time since the explosion, but under strict safety guidelines. Officials provided escorts, hard hats and safety glasses, and those entering the building had wear long sleeves, pants and close-toed shoes.

However, some businesses owners, like Ramesh Batchu, weren’t able to access their spaces because they were destroyed.

Batchu learned of the explosion Sunday morning, two hours before his Indian grocery story was set to open.

“It’s devastating and really hard," the Ellicott City resident said. “I put everything into this store.”

Kelly Drake, the owner of Anxiety Treatment Center of Maryland, also said her business was “completely obliterated.”

She was camping over the weekend and “off the grid” when the explosion occurred. When the 47-year-old got back Sunday morning, she was inundated with texts and calls from friends and patients trying to make sure she was OK.

Because of the nature of her business, the people who work there “are the product. We didn’t have any inventory to lose.” A colleague is allowing her to continue to run her business out of another Columbia office complex beginning Tuesday.

Nearly half of the building space is leased by Social Security. Other tenants include a coffee shop, a sushi restaurant, a pizzeria and a nail salon.

When reached for comment Monday morning, Roger Holland of Holland Properties, the building’s owner, could not provide a statement as he was “up to my ears in work.”

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Bill Harrison, the building’s leasing agent, said Monday that “the building was severely damaged and its future needs to be determined.” Harrison did not have any further updates.

Howard County Councilman Opel Jones, whose district covers the shopping center, came to Monday’s news conference to “show support for the business owners.”

“Thankfully, I think God was looking out,” Jones said. “Riverside Coffee is normally packed. It’s really a blessing no one was hurt and there were no fatalities.”

Jones, who lives about 2 miles from the shopping center, said his “whole house shook” Sunday morning.

Omar Calloway was at Pub Dog in the shopping center the night before the explosion. The next morning, around time of the explosion, he was home in Oakland Mills and said he felt what he believed was an earthquake.

The explosion “shook our roof and stuff came down from the ceiling onto the floor,” the 49-year-old said as he stood in front of the now destroyed plaza.

He’d come to see the damage.

“Fate is an unbelievable force," Calloway said. "Me and my brother could have been unlucky and lost our lives. I count my blessings.”

In a statement Sunday, BGE said inspectors have not found any problems with its gas mains in the surrounding area nor in any nearby buildings.

“As recently as July 2019 we performed a scheduled inspection of the gas main and equipment serving this area and found no issues,” the company wrote. “We are continuing to work closely with investigators to understand the cause of the incident.”

BGE reviewed the building’s history for gas odor calls and none had been made in the past year, according to Koos.

In February 2018, a restaurant did call in an odor and upon inspection it was resolved “as a customer appliance issue,” Koos said.

All gas mains and services in the immediate areas of Snowden Parkway, McCaw Road, Dobbin Road and Little Patuxent Parkway were assessed for leaks. Nothing was found and no gas problems were found in nearby buildings.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Erin B. Logan contributed to this article.

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