- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 29, 2010

WAYNE, Mich. (AP) — A family-owned furniture store in suburban Detroit collapsed in what appeared to be a natural-gas explosion Wednesday, trapping three people in the rubble.

Rescuers pulled the store’s owner from the debris, and he is in critical condition, Wayne City Manager John Zech told a news conference. Search-and-rescue teams continued to hunt for two others, whom police said are employees at the William C. Franks store.

“They’re dealing with a lot of debris,” said Inkster Deputy Police Chief Hilton Napoleon, who was assisting other officers at the scene. “They’ve got to be careful so they don’t cause any more explosions. You don’t know if there are any other flammables in there.”

Wayne Deputy Chief Fire Marshall Shawn Dell said rescue crews were dialing the cell phones belonging to the missing people in the hope of detecting any sounds that might lead them to people presumed buried beneath the rubble. Those efforts have not been successful. Bobcats and front loaders also moved around the area.

“It’s a hand-to-hand search looking for potential victims,” Fire Marshall Dell said, adding that rescuers are being careful for fear of further collapse.

Police evacuated residents from homes and businesses near the store in Wayne, some 15 miles west-southwest of Detroit. The massive blast at about 9 a.m. was felt as much as a mile away. Windows were shattered at nearby businesses.

A second gas leak in the area prompted the evacuation of a wider area and the Wayne City Hall on Wednesday afternoon, according to Consumers Energy spokeswoman Debra Dodd.

Ms. Dodd said city officials decided to evacuate the nearby municipal offices as a precaution, though the site is outside the utility’s evacuation zone. She says crews expected to have the second gas main shut down by late afternoon.

The Wednesday-morning blast “was like ‘ba-boom!’” said 47-year-old Lisa Johns, who rushed to the furniture store from her home nearby.

Ms. Johns said she was watching television in bed when she felt the explosion. “It sounded like a bomb,” she said. “The power went off and came back on two or three minutes later.”

“We’re pretty sure natural gas is involved,” Ms. Dodd said. “We’re working to get it shut off.”

Jennifer Gietzen, 36, who co-manages an auto repair shop with her husband about a block from the furniture store, said the smell of natural gas was “overwhelming.”

When she and her husband got to the scene, there was a small fire burning in the middle of what once was the store and water spewing, perhaps from a burst pipe, onto a nearby truck.

University of Michigan Hospital spokeswoman Christy Barnes told the Associated Press that Paul Franks had been taken to the Ann Arbor facility after the explosion and that he is in critical condition. Mr. Zech said Mr. Franks‘ father founded the store.

A person who was driving by the store when it exploded was being treated at Oakwood Annapolis Hospital and was in stable condition, spokeswoman Paula Rivera-Kerr said.

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