West Virginia Firefighter, Paramedic Killed in Explosion

GHENT, W.Va.-- Four people were confirmed dead and at least five others suffered serious or critical injuries Tuesday in an accidental explosion at the Little General Store on U.S. 19 in Ghent, authorities said.

Those killed, officials said, included a volunteer firefighter/paramedic and another firefighter who was also a Raleigh County building inspector. Both were from Ghent. The other two people killed were private gas company workers. The victims' names were not released pending notification of their families.

The explosion was apparently triggered by a propane gas leak, officials said. A supervisor with the Raleigh County Emergency Operations Center said a 911 call came in at 10:43 a.m. reporting a propane leak at the convenience store/gas station, located across U.S. 19 from the entrance to Flat Top Lake.

Following standard procedure, the Ghent Volunteer Fire Department dispatched a fire crew and EMS unit.

Twelve minutes later, at 10:55, a second tone rang out -- this one for an explosion, one that, according to State Fire Marshal Sterling Lewis, covered 100 square yards.

The blast flipped vehicles, including a large fire truck and an ambulance, damaged seven homes and shattered windows at Ghent Elementary School, Lewis said. Residents at Glade Springs also reported hearing the blast.

Lewis, whose office is investigating with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said at a mid-afternoon news conference that crews on the scene were continuing to look for the possibility of other victims.

"We have no way of knowing how many customers may have been in the store," he said.

Of the injured, Kevin McGraw, marketing director at Raleigh General Hospital in Beckley, said five people were originally treated at the hospital, but, as of late Tuesday afternoon, one had been transported to Charleston Area Medical Center, General Division, and the other four were transported to Cabell-Huntington Hospital.

All five, McGraw said, were in serious condition.

Among those transported to Huntington was Leada Farley, her aunt, Lucy Stowers, said. Stowers said Farley said worked at Godfather's Pizza inside the Little General for several years.

"She broke her jawbone, her pelvic bone and was badly burned," Stowers said.

Lewis, a former Shady Spring High School teacher and coach who grew up in the area, said the scene was like no other he'd come across.

"When I looked up and could see none of that store existing, I knew we had a major, major problem," Lewis said. " ... It blew 360 degrees."

He said there was no evidence that pointed to anything other than an accidental explosion.

Lewis said the initial investigation revealed neither of the two above-ground, 500-pound propane gas tanks at the store had exploded. Rather, one of them had a leak, and a crew there was working to repair it. The gas, because of the cold weather, stayed low to the ground. Fumes that smelled like rotten eggs drifted into the store until it met an unknown source of ignition.

"We're assuming it pooled up in there," he said. " ... It can happen very quickly."

Multiple sources told The Register-Herald the propane tanks were owned by Appalachian Heating of Bradley. When The Register-Herald attempted to contact Appalachian Heating co-owner Dan Akers for comment at his office, the person who answered the phone said Akers was not there and immediately hung up. A voice mail message was left on Akers??? residential phone. As of press time, the call had not been returned.

Little General, a convenience store chain with locations throughout the region, said in a statement the tanks were owned by another firm. Little General said it would "continue to cooperate fully with local fire, police and emergency personnel as well as all state and federal agencies involved as their continue their investigation."

The company also extended its "prayers and concerns to all those directly impacted by the incident at the store as well as their families and friends."

Between 40 and 50 emergency and law enforcement personnel continued working the scene late Tuesday, and Raleigh County Sheriff Danny Moore emphasized that no unauthorized person should attempt to visit the site until the investigation is complete. If they do so, they risk not only their own safety but being arrested.

A portion of U.S. 19 between the fire department and the West Virginia Turnpike interchange remained closed Tuesday evening as crews continued investigating, monitoring the air for propane residue and making the area as safe as possible. All leaks have been controlled, Moore said.

Representatives from the Regional Response Team, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, West Virginia State Police, West Virginia State Fire Marshal's Office and Raleigh County Sheriff's Department were on the scene, along with firefighters and ambulance crews from throughout the region.

Disaster Services volunteers from American Red Cross set up a disaster center at the Ghent Volunteer Fire Department, offering food, shelter and counseling to affected community members.

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