When the chunks of concrete and twisted metal had finally stopped falling from the sky, Guillermo Villa crawled out from under his car and staggered around the moonscape of rubble and dust where moments earlier he had dropped off his wife to get coffee at a brick storefront.
Villa, 56, had prayed for his life while taking cover under the car. Now, he used his cellphone to shoot video of the surreal landscape where a suspected gas explosion had blasted through one of the busier shopping plazas in suburban Broward County and transformed it into something that looked like a war zone.
Car alarms blared around him. Metal roofing, drywall and other detritus littered the parking lot. A fog of dust hung in the distance.
“I thought it was a bomb when I heard it,” Villa said of the powerful explosion at a strip plaza across from The Fountains shops along busy University Drive near Peters Road in Plantation. Residents miles away from the site said they felt their homes shake.
The blast injured 23 people, including two in serious condition who were taken by ambulance to Broward Health Medical Center. One of those injured was transported as a Level 1 Trauma patient with potentially life-threatening injuries.
First responders with search-and-rescue dogs combed through a building where the roof had collapsed but had not reported finding any trapped victims. Those looking for missing loved ones should visit a “reunification center” at Plantation Central Park, 9121 NW Second Street.
Incredibly, miraculously for a holiday weekend, no one was killed, said Plantation Fire Deputy Chief Joel Gordon.
“As bad as it is,” Gordon said, “it could have been a lot worse.”
Near the epicenter of the blast is a center where children learn computer coding to build video games. The center, called Code Ninjas, is typically open and filled with children on Saturdays but was closed for the Fourth of July holiday. The center was destroyed. Its owners used a Facebook account to inform customers that its staff was safe.
“We are fortunate to have been closed today and all our Ninjas, Senseis and Directors are safe,” the center said. “Our thoughts and prayers are now with all those families who were affected attending the other shops in the area.”
The suspected site of the explosion was Pizzafire, a vacant restaurant across the street from The Fountains, though firefighters and police on the scene have not yet confirmed where the blast originated or its cause.
The first reports of the explosion were made at about 11:30 a.m., when fire crews were called to the now-closed Pizzafire, 1025 S. University Drive, in the Market on University plaza. The restaurant is part of a chain with locations in Ohio and New Jersey but does not list a Florida store on its website. Yelp users have reported the Plantation location as closed.
Fire rescue crews from across Broward County responded to the call, and they were joined by federal arson and explosives investigators. There have been no reports that the explosion was intentional.
Plantation building officials are inspecting the buildings to see if they are safe to occupy once again. TECO Peoples Gas also responded and has shut off supply lines to the mall after reports of ruptured gas pipes amid the rubble.
Shopping plazas in the area were closed until the fire department determined it was safe for customers to return. Police blocked traffic from surrounding roads, including University Drive, and advised people to avoid the area, just north of Interstate 595 and west of Fort Lauderdale.
Storefronts around Pizzafire were heavily damaged, but the worst destruction occurred at the pizza store and an LA Fitness next door, where the windows blew out as the gym was filled with members on a Saturday morning. A section of a nearby building, where the vacant pizza store is located, was leveled in the blast.
The blast was remarkable for its force, hurling sheet metal and building debris across the shopping center’s parking lot at cars and storefronts. Windows were shattered. Trees were downed.
Michael Lind, a contractor and former firefighter who helped evacuate people from the area, said he suspected the blast originated at the vacant pizza restaurant, which is being remodeled. He said the force of the blast shattered windows of nearby businesses and caused the gym’s roof to collapse.
“The only thing that was left was some of the framework,” he said of the pizza restaurant. “It exploded both ways, it went north, south and to the west. It blew the windows out at LA Fitness and it collapsed the roof.”
Lind said he called 911, telling the operator to “ send everything they had.”
He said he smelled gas, and that some people were bleeding.
“It was like a war zone,” Lind said. “I’ve seen buildings blow up in the past, but I’ve never seen it like this. It was just so much debris. The sheet metal was twisted. There was a lot of energy behind that explosion.”
Amid the chaos, stunned LA Fitness customers rushed to leave the building as fire alarms bleated. Some appeared injured.
Christina J, who declined to give her last name, was working at LA Fitness in the Kids Club childcare area when she heard a bang at about 11:30 a.m.
“We just felt the whole building shake,” she said. “The ceiling started collapsing in. The windows blew in.”
She saw bright lights at the time of the explosion. Some gym members ran to the exits. Parents rushed to find their children.
There was no screaming or running, she said, but “everyone was trying to get out.”
Outside, water was everywhere, presumably from a burst water line. She said the air was thick with dust, but no smoke.
She found her husband, William, who had just arrived to pick her up. Their car, like many in the adjacent parking lot, was damaged, its windshield busted.
Across the street to the north, in The Fountains, Villa was at the shopping plaza Saturday morning and needed to charge his Tesla. He had dropped his wife off at TooJay’s deli and then drove the short distance to the south end of the parking lot, where there’s a row of charging stations.
Villa said he was about to plug the charger into his car when he heard and felt an explosion. He looked up and saw a plume of dust as debris began to fall from the sky.
“It was like rain of pieces of building,” he said. “I got under my car. My whole body wouldn’t fit so I got whatever I could under it and prayed.”
Villa waited for what felt like minutes and then scooted our from under his car and began to record the scene.
People heard and felt the force of the boom for miles. Nearby, residents heard sirens almost immediately afterward. Some neighbors told reporters they noticed cracks in their homes after the blast.
Allison and Kathy Thibert, who live about two miles away near Mirror Lake Elementary, said they felt the blast shake their house.
Thibert’s husband, Richard, was outside looking in the opposite direction and saw a flash.
“Everything shook,” said Thibert, who went with her daughter, Allison, to the Fountains to see the scene after learning of the site of the explosion.
“At first he thought it was a storm and I said ‘this isn’t lightning.’”