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The Boston Globe

Metro

Cause of Springfield gas explosion sought

A State Police official and his K-9 partner at the explosion site.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

A State Police official and his K-9 partner at the explosion site.

SPRINGFIELD — Authorities said they will continue on Sunday to investigate a natural gas explosion that destroyed a strip club, damaged 42 buildings, and sent at least 19 people to hospitals Friday night.

A spokeswoman for Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, the company responsible for supplying the area, said Saturday that she did not know what had caused the gas leak and explosion at 453 Worthington St. The building, which housed Scores Gentleman’s Club, was razed by the blast.

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Columbia Gas workers checked records for the past six months and determined that before Friday, they had received no calls about a gas odor in the area, said the spokeswoman, Sheila Doiron.

But a dancer at the strip club told the Globe on Friday night that she had smelled gas in the building over the past four months. She said the club’s owner used deodorizers to mask the scent.

Daniel D. Kelly, a lawyer for the club, said in a phone interview Saturday night that he is trying to piece together what happened Friday and in the months leading up to the blast.

Scores of workers remain stunned by the blast, Kelly said, and he plans to talk to them early this week to get their accounts.

“People are shook up, they’re shell-shocked,” he said.

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The club is owned by Helesant, Inc., which also owns other bars within walking distance of Scores, Kelly said. The corporation does not own the building, he said, which was valued at $219,000, according to 2012 projections from the Springfield assessor’s office.

Doiron said Columbia Gas workers had not been dispatched near the blast site for anything more than issues with equipment in homes since 2001. Nothing during that time, she said, had qualified as a gas system leak.

Workers continued to monitor gas levels for several blocks around Worthington Street on Saturday, Doiron said, and found nothing unusual. They planned to continue working Sunday and intended to excavate the gas line that served Scores for examination.

“The natural gas system in the area is intact,” Doiron said. “There are no services shut off, and there is no fear of future services being shut off.”

The blast occurred at 5:25 p.m. Friday, just over an hour after callers reported the odor of gas around the strip club. Gas workers were on the scene within 25 minutes of the initial call and they evacuated 12 to 20 people from Scores, according to Doiron.

They cut service to the club and gas levels in the building had started to decrease when the explosion shook Springfield’s entertainment district, Doiron said.

Two firefighters suffered burns to the face from the blast and 11 firefighters in all were taken to local hospitals, according to Springfield Fire Commissioner Joseph A. Conant. He said three firefighters had remained hospitalized overnight, but all had been released by early Saturday afternoon.

“When the blast occurred, they were knocked to the ground,” Conant said of the firefighters. “Some were hit with bricks and debris.”

AA Automotive and Repair owner Rene Young (center) boards up some broken windows.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

AA Automotive and Repair owner Rene Young (center) boards up some broken windows.

Four gas workers, two police officers, and a cameraman for ABC40/FOX6 news had also been treated and released, Conant said at an afternoon news conference. He did not know the condition of a water-and-sewer worker who also had been hurt in the explosion.

Rubble lay strewn about the former site of the strip club Saturday, as business owners and residents swept up glass and boarded up windows.

Mayor Domenic J. Sarno said hundreds of people were displaced from homes because of the blast, but he did not provide a specific tally. The city opened a shelter Friday night but no one slept there, the mayor said at the news conference.

Sarno said that he did not yet know how much financial damage the explosion caused.

“We will be calculating that — we want to see if there is a declaration that will avail us to other funds,” Sarno said of possible state or federal emergency and disaster support.

Such funds have helped Springfield for much of the past year, as residents work to recover from a tornado that tore up parts of the city in June 2011.

People have become accustomed to disaster recovery, Sarno said. “The people of Springfield are resilient; we have a can-do attitude,” he said.

Thomas Walsh, communications director for the City of Springfield, said building inspectors surveyed a three- to four-block area Saturday and reported that 42 buildings were damaged by the explosion, including 115 residential units.

The buildings have been tagged with red, yellow, and green signs.

Three nonresidential buildings were given a red tag, meaning the buildings are condemned. About 24 other buildings, including 71 apartment units, were given yellow restricted-use tags. Those buildings are not safe for habitation now, but the city believes they can be repaired, said Geraldine McCafferty, director of the Office of Housing.

The city has opened an information center in the state office building on Dwight Street to help residents. It will be open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

Many apartment buildings on Pearl Street, which runs parallel to Worthington, have the restricted-use stickers as workers replace windows.

“[We’re] replacing over 38 windows, just on one side,” said Angel Rivera, 30, who works for Greatest Boston Property.

“The damage, as you can see, is a mess,” said Jimmy Carter, who does maintenance for a series of buildings on Dwight Street. “It’s all broken windows though. There’s no structural damage we’re aware of.”

Carter said area businesses are waiting to get the go-ahead from the city to reopen.

Rene Young, who owns AA Automotive and Repair, said his shop sustained about $5,000 in damage from the blast.

“We’ve got broken windows, some of the light fixtures inside fell, and a couple of the cars inside have cracked windows from things falling on them,” he said.

The explosion occurred just days after a study showed that Boston’s underground pipeline system has some more than 3,300 gas leaks. Many of these leaks are not considered safety risks, but any old city could have problems similar to Boston’s, the authors said.

Mark McDonald, president of the New England Gas Workers Association, said in a phone interview Saturday that there are about 25,000 gas leaks across Massachusetts, a problem he said is tied to poor oversight of the gas industry.

McDonald wrote a bill that would tighten regulation and industry standards, a measure that is currently before the state Legislature.

Of the Springfield explosion, he said, “This points out the fact that allowing 25,000 gas leaks to continue to leak in Massachusetts is a big mistake.”

Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at zachary.sampson@globe.com. Colin A. Young can be reached at colin.young@globe.com.

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