East Columbus explosion still under investigation; metal theft suspected

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COLUMBUS - One building was destroyed, another demolished, but as many as four apartment buildings suffered damage and may need to be demolished following a suspected gas explosion in east Columbus, city officials said Monday.

The blast Friday leveled a duplex and damaged or destroyed several other housing units nearby. Two people - a man and woman - were seriously injured in the explosion. The official cause remains under investigation but fire officials believe metal thieves may be behind the explosion.

Both victims were taken to the hospital Friday with broken bones and burns. Fire officials said their conditions remained the same Monday. A search for a next of kin for one of the victims was also still underway, according to Battalion Chief Steve Martin with the Columbus Fire Department.

The apartment units were supposed to be vacant when the blast occurred Friday morning near 20th and Fabron Avenue in east Columbus.

The units had been vacant for about a week and were under renovation at the time of the explosion, according to a spokeswoman for Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority.

As for the belief that suspected metal theft was the culprit for the explosion, CHMA officials on the scene Monday afternoon would only say: "That's speculation."

On Monday, a CMHA spokeswoman said that there had been six reported metal thefts to their property in the area since April. A compressor had been stolen from the duplex where the blast occurred along with metal piping. CMHA said it is in the process of conducting an inventory to determine which of its other properties had metal pipes versus plastic.

Spokeswoman Linda Siefkas with CMHA said that additional 24-hour security was called in after Friday's explosion.

Neighbors have wondered why the gas had not been turned off if the apartment units were vacant. Siefkas and Mike Wagner, vice president of design and construction for CMHA, both said that it is not typical to turn the utilities off while the duplexes are under renovation.

A spokesman for the city's building authority said that CMHA had sought 72 permits for its renovation project, which was supposed to be completed by the end of the year.

That timeline will be pushed back as a result of the explosion, Wagner said.

"To replace these units, we will have to go through plan process, plan approval, it's a lot different than remodeling a unit," said Mike Wagner with CMHA.

The blast also blew out windows and caused minor damage to several nearby homes.

John Hargrave's house is among them.

"Just like that.... that was surreal. When I left the house was there, when I came back it was level. That was shocking to see," Hargrave told 10 Investigates.

John Hargrave told 10 Investigates he does not have insurance and now faces uncertainty over how his home might be repaired. He is fearful the home that's been in his family since the mid-1970s will no longer be his home.

"I want to keep it in the family," Hargrave said. "It will be rough if we have to leave because of something like this."

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