Oct. 17 dawned in Harrisonburg with the usual blend of quiet streets and crisp autumn air — until a natural gas explosion left a small shopping center located off S. Main Street desolate and destroyed.
Among the several small businesses that fell to the ground was Naza Salon & Barber Shop. The salon, which opened last September, had finally started to take off, Salwa Mahdi, the manager said. After the pandemic flattened its chances of success in its first year, the explosion has brought new tribulations to the Mahdi family, who owns Naza.
“The whole building went down, so it was awful,” Mahdi said. “The salon, it was a beautiful place with all the stuff we have in there. I cannot stop thinking about it.”
Family business destroyed
Salwa said she wasn’t at the salon at the time of the explosion. She was asleep and woken by a call from her father-in-law, who thought the loud boom and shaking ground had been an earthquake. She said that when she checked her phone, she saw a text from one of their barbers, Sergio Valdez, who was at the salon with a customer.
Valdez’s text said that he smelled gas and planned to call in an emergency, but Salwa saw it too late. Valdez and his customer left the building and were being treated in Charlottesville, both in stable conditions. Salwa said she called Valdez with no answer, and she hasn’t been able to contact him since the explosion, either in person or on the phone.
When she found out that there’d been an explosion, Salwa said she was devastated.
“Oh, it was awful,” Salwa said. “Oh, my god. I keep crying. I couldn’t stop crying because it was awful and something that wasn’t expected.”
Salwa immediately went to see the site of the explosion. She said the whole structure was on the ground, and the emergency response teams wouldn’t let them cross the lines of police tape to look at it.
A tragedy for the Mahdi family
Salwa’s brother-in-law, Zhyar Abdul, had a different experience. He’d just woken up. He heard the explosion, he said, and knew it wasn’t anything normal. He said at first, he thought lightning had struck his house, which was near the site of the explosion.
“I saw smoke coming from the backyard, and at that moment, I’d known it was a huge explosion,” Abdul said. “I just decided to walk towards it … and I realized it’s right around where my sister-in-law [owns] a business, and when I get to it, it appears that it’s, you know, it’s the spot that I was worried about.”
Abdul said he called Salwa immediately and told her the news, although she’d already seen the text from Valdez. The explosion was unexpected, Abdul said, and would be difficult for his family to recover from.
“I was [in] shock,” Abdul said. “It definitely wasn’t easy … It was hard because I knew it’d be hard on [Salwa], and then it would be hard on the family.”
Salwa’s brother, Shwan Mahdi, owns Naza Salon. However, Salwa is responsible for running the business. Shwan lives in Haymarket in Northern Virginia, and he was at home when the explosion occurred.
“I got really shocked,” Shwan said. “Since Saturday, I didn’t know what to do … For two days, I didn’t know what to say, honestly, because … we’ve been trying to make that business better and better, and suddenly we lost everything.”
Almost two weeks later, and there still isn’t a plan for the business, Salwa and Shwan said, but they hope to rebuild and reopen the salon. They also said they’ve been grateful for the community stepping in to help them during this devastating setback.
“Everybody, my customers, or the people I know, keep calling me,” Salwa said. “I even got a phone call from Michigan last night, someday asking if we are OK and he saw that in the news. So, I really appreciate everybody and thank everyone who calls me or texts me or supports me in any way.”
Abdul, who isn’t involved with the business but is worried for his family, said he’s thankful for the Harrisonburg community, which has already raised around $7,000 on the family’s GoFundMe page for Naza Salon & Barber Shop.
“It’s kind of nice how, like, the community is coming together and made a GoFundMe and people are supporting it,” Abdul said. “[They’re] trying to help out in every way they can, so it’s really nice to see that.”
Contact Charlotte Matherly at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.