Search continues after Detroit-area explosion

Two employees are still missing in tangled debris left by natural gas tragedy at furniture store in Wayne, Mich.

Published December 29, 2010 10:55PM (EST)

From beneath the mountain of debris, flames and spewing water where a furniture store had just stood, Jennifer Gietzen heard yelling and saw some movement.

Her husband, Chris Gietzen, and workers from the auto shop the couple manages then ran into the remains of the William C. Franks Furniture store, leveled Wednesday by an apparent natural gas explosion. They climbed "10 feet high on a pile of twisted everything" and started digging after finding Paul Franks, the burned and struggling store owner.

"He was trying to pull himself out, but his leg was stuck," Chris Gietzen, 35, told The Associated Press.

Rescuers arrived quickly and got to Franks, who was in critical condition Wednesday. Crews were still searching hand-to-hand in below-freezing temperatures for two store employees, dialing their cell phones in the hope that the ringing would help locate them.

"They're dealing with a lot of debris," said Inkster Deputy Police Chief Hilton Napoleon, who was assisting 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."

Police evacuated homes and businesses near the store in the heart of Wayne's business district, some 15 miles from Detroit.

Groups of firefighters entered the building four and five at a time, scraping away at the rubble using long poles with hooks on the end. Bobcats and front-loaders moved around the area. Video footage shot from TV helicopters showed dozens of rescuers working on and around the remains of the store.

Store delivery worker Russell Brothers, 52, said the missing people are a store secretary and a salesman, whose cars were parked outside the store.

"It's a hand-to-hand search looking for potential victims," said Wayne Deputy Fire Chief Shawn Bell, adding that rescuers are being careful for fear of further collapse.

Authorities said they planned to search through the night if necessary. Portable lights were brought in to aid the effort. Temperatures were expected to stay in the 20s overnight and freezing rain was forecast for Thursday morning.

The massive blast at about 9 a.m. was felt as much as a mile away. Windows at nearby businesses shattered as the one-story building was reduced to a pile of wood, crumbled drywall, twisted metal and broken bits of furniture. A bureau drawer could be seen.

"It sounded like a bomb," said 47-year-old Lisa Johns, who said she was watching television in bed at her home nearby and rushed to the scene. "The power went off and came back on two or three minutes later."

Consumers Energy spokeswoman Debra Dodd said the utility believed natural gas was involved.

The company had received a call of a possible gas leak in the area several hours earlier and a worker had been trying to track down the source when the explosion took place, Dodd said. She said the gas main to the building was shut off and another line in the area was being closed after utility crews found a second leak later Wednesday. The nearby city hall and additional homes were evacuated as a precaution.

Jennifer Gietzen, 36, said the blast "about shook me out of my chair" at the auto repair shop. When she and her husband arrived at the scene, she said the smell of natural gas was "overwhelming."

The couple and others saw the small fire burning about 10 feet from where Franks was pinned, and water spewing, perhaps from a burst pipe, onto a nearby truck. Three hours later, the building still was smoldering.

Wayne City Manager John Zech said Franks' father founded the high-end furniture store, which local residents said has been in business for more than 40 years.

Franks "treats everybody like family," said Brothers, who said he has worked at the store for 18 years. He wasn't scheduled to work Wednesday but came to see what happened after the explosion.

University of Michigan Hospital spokeswoman Christy Barnes said Franks was in critical condition at the Ann Arbor facility. His family issued a statement through the hospital expressing appreciation for the support and concern of the community.

"We are focused on his care and treatment at this time and we ask that you respect our privacy. Our concern extends to all others affected by today's tragedy," the statement said.

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

Brothers and saleswoman Deanna Dow were helping authorities pinpoint where in the building the missing workers might have been when the explosion occurred.

"We're just shaken up," said Dow, who had been scheduled to start work at noon.

Chris Gietzen said the scene was treacherous, but he felt obligated to help.

"I couldn't be someone who didn't do that," said Gietzen, a reserve officer with the Wayne Police Department.


Associated Press writers Corey Williams, David Aguilar and Randi Berris in Detroit contributed to this report.

By Ed White


By Jeff Karoub

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