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Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services Battalion Chief Stephen Hardesty talks about a gas explosion in Columbia Sunday morning.

A natural gas explosion ripped through a Columbia shopping center Sunday, just 30 minutes after Howard County emergency responders evacuated the building. There were no injuries.

“The building is probably totaled,” Howard County Fire & Rescue Battalion Chief Stephen Hardesty said.

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The explosion, which could be heard for miles, occurred just before 8 a.m. in the Lakeside Office building in the 8800 block of Stanford Blvd. Officials said the explosion caused a widespread power outage and closed roads in the Stanford Boulevard and McGaw Road area.

A Social Security Administration employee trying to catch up on some work on the weekend reported smelling natural gas about two hours earlier, according to the owner of the building, which also has some offices. When firefighters arrived, they noticed a gas leak from underground, where the gas line connects to the building — and the parking lot pavement swelling from the pressure buildup.

“There was a visible hump in the ground,” said Roger Holland, of Holland Properties, the building owner. “The parking lot was actually raising.”

It’s unclear what sparked the explosion, and the office complex is closed while officials investigate, so Holland did not know the extent of the damage inside.

In a statement, Baltimore Gas and Electric wrote that inspectors have not found any issues 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.”

The roughly 40,000-square-foot, L-shaped building’s office and retail space is fully occupied, according to Bill Harrison, its leasing agent.

Social Security leases nearly half that space for an office, which did not appear affected by the explosion, Holland said. Other tenants include an Indian grocery store, a nail salon, a coffee shop, a sushi restaurant and a pizzeria.

Harrison said the explosion was shocking to hear about, and called the damage "extensive.”

The majority of the storefronts in the shopping center were destroyed. The tan brick, beige mortar and forest green awnings and roofs, were shredded and crumpled in the parking lot.

“Fortunately it was 7:30 on a Sunday, not 7:30 on a Monday,” Harrison said.

“The time of day played a factor," said Hardesty, the fire battalion chief. "None of the businesses were open.”

Hardesty said the gas explosion was one of the worst he has seen. The other, he said, was a townhouse that was destroyed two years ago in West Columbia.

Firefighters were dispatched to the shopping center for a fire alarm triggered at one of the businesses. They found the pavement swelling in the parking lot about 10 feet from the business facades on the center’s Stanford Boulevard side.

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Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said in a statement that firefighters responded to “multiple reports” of hissing sounds coming from a large crack in the parking lot around 7:30 a.m. — about a half-hour before the explosion.

The gas from that crater seeped into the building, causing the explosion—although businesses on both sides of the complex suffered significant damage, Hardesty said. By that time, fire and rescue personnel had created a safety perimeter where nearby residents had been moved.

Rescue crew members had just completed an air monitoring test to make sure everyone was out of the range of the gas, Hardesty explained.

“All the glass and debris blew out from in front of the building,” he said. “There was a large pressure wave."

“It was so powerful it could be heard in communities many miles away,” Ball said. “I am appreciative for the quick and professional response by crews from the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services and the Howard County Police Department.”

Sydanie Patterson, a Columbia resident who lives a mile and a half away from the shopping center, said a loud “boom” woke her Sunday morning.

“My neighbors heard it too,” she said. “Honestly I thought it was an accident. It shook the house. I knew it wasn’t an earthquake because an earthquake doesn’t bang. I knew it was major.”

Hardesty said it took about an hour to extinguish any debris that was on fire.

Baltimore Gas & Electric spokesman Richard Yost said its crews were working alongside Howard County officials to investigate the cause of the explosion.

“While our crew member was on site, an explosion occurred,” Yost wrote in a statement. “BGE crews have turned off gas service and are currently working closely with the fire department. Once it is safe to do so, BGE will investigate the cause of the incident.”

The building owner thanked the county’s and first responders’ actions in making sure no one was hurt.

“I’m very appreciative of all the help we’re getting from the Howard County executive and all the first responders and all county agencies that have been on-site and taking care of us,” Holland said.

Pechrithy Kan, manager of Pho La Cay, a restaurant that has been open for the past year in the shopping center, was driving to work when he saw the destruction from the explosion.

“The glass window is broken,” he said as he pointed to the restaurant, which was located about seven businesses away from the main explosion.

“I’m not sure [when they’ll let us back in],” he lamented. “The cop said we might have to close for a long time. ... We have a lot of food in there and people need to come to work. Business is pretty good.”

Authorities could not say when they expect to allow people back into the businesses damaged by the explosion.

“I have mobilized our team from the Howard County Economic Development Authority to assist those businesses and workers who may find themselves displaced by this event," Ball’s statement continued. “We will do everything possible to minimize the impact of this explosion [on] those who are affected by it.”

The explosion occurred in a largely commercial part of Columbia south of Route 175, north of Oakland Mills Road and west of Snowden River Parkway.

The shopping center is next to an Extended Stay America, the Howard County Health Department, and less than a mile from Dobbin Center and its Walmart to the north and a Wegmans supermarket to the south, where several hours after the explosion, the smell of burned material remained in the air.

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