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Explosion at Virginia shopping center: Authorities seek clues

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A building explosion took place at a shopping center in downtown Harrisonburg, Va. on October 17.

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Investigators on Sunday hunted for clues behind a thunderous explosion that leveled a strip mall, injured five people and rattled residents for miles on a peaceful morning in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

The blast Saturday ripped through a shopping center in downtown Harrisonburg where businesses included a family-owned halal market, a musical instrument store and recording studio and a nail salon and barber shop.

Nearby James Madison University said in a Facebook post that three students from the school’s Army ROTC program who had been participating in a 10-mile race were among the injured. The explosion occurred about 30 yards from the start and finish line for the race, the school said.

Damon Boyd, who was working construction nearby when the blast erupted, told the Daily-News Record he and his crew rushed to the scene.  An injured man on the ground  “started hollering that he’s dying,” Boyd said. “It looked like something hit him in the face.”

Although Gov. Ralph Northam tweeted that state emergency personnel had been deployed to the area after what he called a gas explosion, Harrisonburg Fire Chief Matt Tobia said the cause was under investigation.

City spokesman Michael Parks, who said the probe will likely take several days, said there’s no indication of foul play.

A firefighter walks through the burning rubble of a shopping center after an explosion in Harrisonburg, Va., on , Oct. 17, 2020. (Photo: Ian Munro, Daily New-Record, via AP)

Investigation underway: Investigation underway after explosion injures several people at a Virginia shopping center

One of the injured JMU students was hospitalized but was expected to be quickly released, the university said. Two other students were treated at the scene and released, the school said.

The university said the other two injured people were not affiliated with JMU. City officials said the two others had been flown to the University of Virginia’s medical center in serious condition and were “now stable.”

Pat Doorenbos, who lives about half a mile away, said her house “literally shook” and she feared a plane had crashed or a tanker blew up on Interstate 81. 

“I grew up on a farm and I thought to myself ‘That sounds like gas or oil.’ There couldn’t be anything that huge that would shake my house,” she told the Daily News-Record.

JMU sophomore Matthew Jenkins recalled a jolt early Saturday morning.

“I just heard a loud bang and I was thrown into my wall,” Jenkins told WTVR. “My head hit the wall and I thought that something had crashed into the building, so I looked outside and… I saw a big mushroom cloud.”

The strip mall was a “total loss,” Parks said, and damage was reported to other structures. 

Harrisonburg, a city of 50,000, boasts breathtaking mountain views and a lively arts scene and is a hub for outdoor recreation. In addition to JMU, it’s home to Eastern Mennonite University,

Contributing: The Associated Press

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