people_watching_xplosion

The explosion occurred at approximately 8:30 a.m. Saturday morning and locals gathered at Miller Circle to witness the aftermath.

The natural gas explosion that took place at Miller Circle on Oct. 17 resulted in confusion, fear and alarm among Harrisonburg residents when it shook the city Saturday morning. The disaster was witnessed by a variety of locals — all with different accounts of where they were and what they were doing when the deafening sound made its way from S. Main Street.

UPDATE: Cause of Saturday’s explosion determined a natural gas leak

The view 10 miles in

Mike Fox, an adjunct instructor for a military independent study class, coached students for the 10-mile run Saturday morning. He was finishing up the race with two cadets about a mile away from the finish line near Newman Lake when he heard the explosion.

Fox said the two cadets were slightly injured from their run and didn’t think too much about the boom, but it “definitely did not seem normal” to him. 

About two minutes after the explosion, Fox said he saw smoke and debris floating in the air so he had an idea of where the explosion came from — the finish line. 

Despite hearing the loud boom and seeing the rising smoke, he didn’t want to leave the cadets behind so he continued on with them to finish the race. 

“I wasn’t going to leave these girls because, you know, we had hit a goal for the day,” Fox said. “We were trying to finish these 10 miles.”

“Right after we saw the smoke, my wife called me and I basically started running faster before I even answered the phone, like I knew she was calling because there was a problem,” Fox said. “So, I just started running toward the smoke, answered the phone and talked to her while I was running and she’s like, ‘There’s been an explosion and people are injured.’ I asked her if she was OK and at this point, I’m sprinting. You know, I’m sprinting back through Purcell Park.” 

With adrenaline coursing through his veins, Fox said he continued sprinting toward the explosion site. Even though he knew his wife was safe, he had to get to the scene as quickly as he could.

Once he got to the site, Fox said he saw people pulling debris away from the fire as he searched for his wife who he said always goes to ROTC’s running events as she’s a running coach herself. 

“I really didn’t know what I was going to come back to,” Fox said. “I was happy that my wife was OK, but you know, I didn’t know if I was going to come back to people you know, unconscious and severely hurt. You think about the things you see in the movies, like ‘Is that what I’m getting ready to go in to?”’

After the team completed “accountability,” which is essentially roll call, he said he was glad to see that besides three people, everyone was OK. He said those who were injured weren’t “losing their cool” and were in “good spirits.”

As a few days have passed since the explosion, Fox said there have been a few things that have come up such as concussions and other minor injuries that weren’t noticed at the time because of adrenaline. 

“It was really surprising how well the cadets handled it,” Fox said. 

From the window of a seamstress 

Tatyana Kozhushko, owner of Tatyana’s Custom Tailoring, usually has her store closed Saturdays. However, she had a bridal appointment Oct. 17 that prompted her to be at her store shortly after 8 a.m., allowing her to witness the explosion. She said she wasn’t planning on staying at work for too long, but what followed kept her cleaning shards of glass and picking up hundreds of spools of thread well into the afternoon.

The bride’s appointment wasn’t scheduled until around 9:30 to 10 a.m., missing the explosion by approximately an hour. Kozhushko was in the store alone but arrived just ten minutes prior to the explosion. When it occurred, Kozhushko was in a back corner of her building preparing her morning coffee.

Kozhushko said the sound of the explosion could be compared to a truck hitting her building. When she peeked out her window, she saw the fragments of the building being shot into the sky.

“That building was in the air,” Kozhushko said. “It was falling down, it was really like a Hollywood movie.”

She said that once she overcame the initial shock, she walked closer to the scene to take videos and photos of the aftermath. She noticed that the entire Wendy’s parking lot was filled with fragments of the exploded building. She also said she saw windows of surrounding buildings that were blown out. 

She saw the fire grow in strength and intensity, as there wasn’t initially much fire but the small flames grew and the level of smoke that poured out of the scene skyrocketed.

She said the gravity of the situation didn’t set in until she returned to her building and saw all of her wall decorations on the floor. After seeing the explosion’s effect, she began to clean and straighten out the area.

Kozhushko said that roughly 10 minutes after it took place, her customers began calling her to make sure she wasn’t injured in the explosion. She also noted that one of the buildings impacted by the explosion was her old shop. Her children also took notice.

“My children called me, they said ‘Mom, that was your old shop,’” Kozhushko said. “I was in that building for 12 years … It’s like my first house.”

Kozhushko said it took her a few hours to process the magnitude of the damage of dismantled boards and drywall and thick clouds of smoke she saw when she peered out her window. 

As she stood and watched first responders at work, Kozhushko said she was impressed by the speed and impact of the emergency service workers that arrived at the scene.

“I was surprised,” Kozhushko said. “In less than three minutes they all came and they took water from that [fire hydrant].”

Through the eyes of a construction superintendent

Jeff Fisher, a construction superintendent, was working on turning the Vibe Bistro building into a Walgreens on S. Main Street when he found himself near the scene of the explosion and resulting fire. He explained the initial shock he felt when the explosion took him by surprise and compared its impact on his ears to the sensation of ascending a mountain.

“I was in awe,” Fisher said. “I’ve been close to bridges being imploded before … and I knew what was going to happen. This was unexpected. I had no idea what happened.”

Fisher said he was surprised the force of the blast didn’t cause the building he was working inside to collapse.

“When the explosion happened, it shook the whole building,” Fisher said. “I thought my building was coming down on top of me. It stirred up so much dust I couldn’t even see to get out of the door.”

When Fisher found his way out of the building and peered through the dust, he said he saw metal debris flying in the air moments before it landed nearby or got caught in the surrounding trees.

“I looked over there and that’s when I saw,” Fisher said. “All that metal that’s in the trees, it was still about 20 feet above the trees when I walked out the door.”

Fisher said when he was able to get his initial view of the scene, he quickly realized that the building was leveled with the exception of a two-story segment that remained standing. He also said he noticed a fire gaining traction.

In his initial assessment of the scene, he speculated that a gas leak may have been the cause of the explosion. At the time this was unconfirmed, but the city of Harrisonburg’s Fire Marshal’s Office proved Fisher’s theory correct Oct. 19 when it was found that a natural gas leak was the cause of the explosion and fire.

Fisher also saw a man who was injured by fragments in the explosion. He said numerous people went to help him until EMTs arrived at the scene. While this occurred, Fisher said some individuals were warning others of a potential secondary blast that, luckily, never came.

“I’m just glad to be alive,” Fisher said. “I’m glad it wasn’t any closer.”

Katelyn Waltemyer contributed to this report.

Contact Connor Murphy & Carley Welch at breezenews@gmail.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.