A natural gas explosion late Wednesday morning rocked and set ablaze Minnehaha Academy’s upper school in Minneapolis, causing a partial building collapse, killing a receptionist and leaving a janitor unaccounted for while injuring at least nine others, school and emergency officials said.
Fire Chief John Fruetel confirmed the fatality during an afternoon news conference, saying a body was pulled from the rubble sometime after 2 p.m.
“Of the two missing, we have located one; just one.” Fruetel said.
Among those on the upper school campus during the 10:20 a.m. blast were year-round staff, girls for summer cross-country practice, as well as school basketball and soccer players. Classes were scheduled to begin Aug. 23.
Hennepin County Medical Center officials said four patients remained hospitalized late Wednesday afternoon. One remained critical, three were in satisfactory condition and five were released.
School officials and family identified the victim as Ruth Berg, a receptionist at the school. Condolences on social media began pouring out for Berg, who was engaged to be married, according to her future brother in law Jeff Burrington. School officials also confirmed the missing man as 81-year-old John Carlson, an alumnus of the school who returned in 2003 to work as a janitor and was well-loved by students and faculty alike.
His wife, Barbara Carlson, would only say in a telephone interview from her Minneapolis home, “I am not doing well. I haven’t heard from my husband, and I’d like to keep the line free.”
A search is underway beneath two floors of rubble in search of Carlson, Fruetel said, and the search is still considered a rescue operation.
“It’s just a very precarious situation, it’s very, very unstable, there are no signs of (the missing person’s) obvious location and we know there are probably at least two floors of debris,” Fruetel said. “We still consider it a rescue at this point; we don’t really know we’re going to do our best to locate everyone that’s unaccounted for.”
A third person believed to be missing was found uninjured at about noon. Nine people were taken to Hennepin County Medical Center, with three initially in critical condition, four in serious condition and two suffering “very minor trauma,” said Dr. Jim Miner, the hospital’s chief of emergency services.
Miner described the injuries as fractures, cuts and head wounds. He said no one is being treated for burns.
“It could have been a lot worse,” he said during a media briefing outside the hospital. “We were relieved, we were prepared for a lot more injuries. It was a terrible tragedy.”
The building near E. Lake Street in the 3100 block of West River Parkway collapsed mostly in the center portion where a chimney was damaged but still standing.
Fire crews extinguished the blaze and remain looking to remove any people who might be trapped, officials added. Fire personnel rescued at least three people from the roof.
Fruetel said the damage was focused in the building’s center in a utility area, but the entire building was damaged. Two floors have collapsed over a subbasement that is filled with water from the hoses used to knock down the fire, Fruetel said. Finding the missing person “is not going to be quick,” he said. “It will probably take us some time.”
A statement from school administrators said the explosion involved a natural gas leak affecting only the upper school. Officials with Hennepin County Emergency Management confirmed that determination.
Agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were on scene interviewing witnesses, one with his head bandaged. Minneapolis homicide detectives took witnesses one by one into a Metro Transit bus for interviews.
The natural gas supply from CenterPoint Energy was cut off, and the utility has “well-trained, experienced crews on site who are coordinating with local emergency officials to secure the area,” said company spokeswoman Becca Virden. “We will conduct an investigation to determine the cause.”
One witness said occupants in the building were aware of the presence of gas before the explosion.
Chimali Day, a senior, was in her counselor’s office when the building shook and the explosion knocked her off her feet. “One of the people that works here was like, ‘Get out there’s a gas leak.’” she said. “And as soon as I was getting out, it just happened right in front of my eyes. And when it happened my mom just jumped on top of me because I was on the floor.”
Fruetel acknowledged there were reports of a gas leak before the collapse.
“There was some warning to get out of the building. I do know that,” he said.
Along with the blast taking out a significant chunk of the building, walls still standing had their window frames popped out.
According to city of Minneapolis records, Eagan-based Master Mechanical Inc. was issued a permit on June 7 for “gas piping and hooking up meter” at the address.
Ryan Larsen, a financial officer with the company, said, “We’ve got people on the site there. They are figuring it out.”
Workplace inspections of Master Mechanical Inc. have led to two citations for violations in recent years, neither of which had “huge penalties,” according to Jenny O’Brien, a spokeswoman for Minnesota OSHA. The company was initially fined $1,100 in 2010 for a violation related to an employee’s protection from falling, on a Bloomington site. In 2014, it was initially fined $600 for two paperwork violations at a Maple Grove site, involving an employee right-to-know and a hazard communication, OSHA records show. Those fines were later reduced, to $770 (2010) and $415 (2014).
Sara Jacobson, executive director of institutional advancement at Minnehaha Academy, said the explosion took out a section of classrooms for grades 9 through 12. The academy’s lower school is many blocks downriver and unaffected.
Kylee Kassebaum, a sophomore cross-country runner, was inside at the time. She said she and her teammates had left about 30 seconds earlier for lunch.
“All the windows just kind of burst out, and there was a huge explosion that was so loud it kind of shook your insides,” she said. “As soon as we saw it we got in the car, and someone drove away because we didn’t know how safe the situation was.”
School administration official Jacob Swanson said he and others were in a meeting, when “I heard a loud explosion. My ears popped.”
Swanson said that he and the others “just saw the middle of the building gone.”
Once outside, Swanson said all he’s doing now is “just praying for the people who still might be in there … That’s where my heart is.”
A girls’ basketball team was also practicing in the gym when the blast occurred. Their coach described it as sounding like “a large door slamming.” Another witness said he and his daughter were in her counselor’s office when the explosion knocked them back. All three made it out.
Tom Haubrich graduated from the academy in May and rushed there after seeing news reports.
“That right there is where everybody would’ve been during the school year,” he said, pointing to the destruction. “That’s the stairwell that connects the entire school to everything.”
Lunchrooms, libraries, classrooms, “everything connects to right there,” he said. “If it had been during the school year, hundreds would’ve been hurt.”
Dozens of neighbors lined 46th Avenue S. as they watched units douse the rubble from across the school’s soccer field and behind yellow caution tape.
Anne Dussol, who lives a block away from the school, heard the explosion. “I was walking, and I just heard a giant boom,” she said. “It was not a gunshot or a loaded brick being dropped. It was way louder than that.”
Soon neighbors started coming out of their houses and seeing the aftermath. Dussol said she and a teacher walked to the sidewalk to see.
“There were flames shooting from the parking lot,” she said. “We thought at first it was a car on fire until we realized the building was gone.”
Kids were playing soccer on the athletic field as what she believed was part of a soccer camp, she said. After the explosion, they ran away from the school and onto the street.
Dussol remembered the section of the building being as tall as the surrounding parts of the school. “It filled in the middle,” she said.
Deb Shold said she was in the basement of her house about a block away, which rattled when the explosion went off. Two minutes afterward she grabbed her watch, which read 10:25 a.m.
“I heard a very loud explosion and the lights dimmed but came right back on,” she said.
Shold said she had just run water right before the explosion happened, afterward, her water was rusty. It’s unclear if city water lines have been affected.
Founded in 1913, Minnehaha Academy is a Christian school. The school had 825 students enrolled during the 2015-2016 school year.
School starts for all grade levels including the Upper School on Aug. 23. The academy lists several camps as being in session on during the week of July 31 the Upper School including a Girls Robotic Camp, which runs from July 31 to Aug. 4 starting at 8:30 a.m. and ending at noon.
School officials said that any families wishing to pick up children should use Edmund Boulevard to the south of the private school’s campus.
Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement that his office “is in continuous contact with the city of Minneapolis and the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, as emergency personnel respond to this emergency.”
Dayton pledged that the state “will provide any and all resources necessary to aid first responders in their efforts to ensure the safety of all those impacted by this morning’s explosion.”
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