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3 firefighters critical, 5 other people injured in explosion at southeast Oak Cliff apartments

This story, originally published in The Dallas Morning News, is reprinted as part of a collaborative partnership between The Dallas Morning News and Texas Metro News. The partnership seeks to boost coverage of Dallas’ communities of color, particularly in southern Dallas.

Dallas Fire-Rescue was called about a gas leak Wednesday morning at the complex near Simpson Stuart and Bonnie View roads.
Dallas Fire-Rescue
Dallas Fire-Rescue works the scene of an apartment explosion in the 5700 block of Highland Hills Drive in southeast Oak Cliff on Wednesday.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

By Tom SteeleMaggie ProsserHojun Choi and Catherine Marfin

An explosion tore apart an apartment building in southeast Oak Cliff on Wednesday morning, injuring eight people — including four firefighters — and leaving hundreds displaced.

Dallas Fire-Rescue spokesman Jason Evans was hesitant to call the blast at the Highland Hills Apartments a gas explosion, saying that investigators were still working to determine its cause. However, residents reported smelling gas in the area overnight before the explosion, he said.

Firefighters were called about a gas leak at the complex in the 5700 block of Highland Hills Drive, near Simpson Stuart and Bonnie View roads, about 10:20 a.m. Wednesday. They could smell gas near one of the buildings when they arrived, and the blast occurred while they were investigating, Evans said.

Aerial footage showed heavy damage to one building at the complex, with one corner of the two-story structure destroyed and smoke wafting through a large hole in the roof. Damaged windows could be seen in nearby buildings, and the explosion threw debris 20 to 30 yards.

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Evans said the western side of the building suffered extensive damage and charring from the resulting fire, making it too unstable for firefighters and other first responders to enter and search thoroughly. The blaze was extinguished later in the day, and in a statement issued late Wednesday, Evans said the building had been torn down due to its instability.

“When you are dealing with an explosion that caused that much damage to a two-story apartment building, you can only begin to imagine what kind of impact it can have on a human body,” Evans said.

But everyone in the building that exploded had been accounted for, officials said.

Evans could not confirm whether authorities had been to the complex earlier to check on the reports of a gas leak.

Late Wednesday, Atmos Energy issued a statement saying that its crews had found no problems with its lines during checks after the fire.

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“After verifying that gas was shut off to the meter that supplies the apartment complex, our highly trained technicians began performing safety checks of Atmos Energy’s system,” the utility said in the statement. “Atmos Energy has verified that our system is operating as expected, and we have found no indication that our system was involved.

“The safety of our community is our highest priority, and our crews remain on site to work to assist emergency responders,” the statement read. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the firefighters and residents who were injured.”

The injured

Three of the injured firefighters were in critical but stable condition at Parkland Memorial Hospital, Dr. Marshal Isaacs, medical director for Dallas Fire-Rescue, said during a news conference Wednesday. The fourth injured firefighter was taken to a hospital in stable condition and later released.

Dallas Fire-Rescue Chief Dominique Artis said during the same news conference that fire officials had been able to talk to the injured firefighters, something he said was a good indicator of their prospects for recovery.

Late Wednesday, Evans said that all of the injured civilians had been discharged from hospitals. Three of those people had been at Parkland, Isaacs said. It wasn’t clear where the fourth person was treated.

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Dallas Fire-Rescue
Members of Dallas Fire-Rescue work at the scene of an apartment explosion and fire on Highland Hills Drive.(Tom Fox)

Artis said all of the injured firefighters were from the same station and were working on the same apparatus at the time.

The chief didn’t specify which station the firefighters were from, but WFAA-TV (Channel 8) and KDFW-TV (Channel 4), citing union officials, said they were assigned to Station 25, which is in the 2100 block of 56th Street, near Ledbetter Drive and Lancaster Road in southeast Oak Cliff.

Artis said he was at a fire station awarding a crew a citation when he and colleagues began to hear radio traffic about the fire.

“As any chief would do, when you hear a mayday call from your firefighters, your heart sinks, because that means somebody’s trapped or injured,” he said. “Like we do as firefighters, the muscle memory kicks in, our training.

“Our men and women were so brave in the efforts they did today,” he said. “Those incoming crews as well as some help from civilians, I’m hearing, also were able to help us get our folks out of the rubble. We’re going to be praying, and we ask each one of you to be praying for these members.”

Jim McDade, president of the Dallas Fire Fighters Association, said the department would send crews to stand watch near the rooms at Parkland Memorial Hospital as long as firefighters remained there.

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“The whole department is throwing their support behind the guys who are here,” he said. “We’ll make sure that they and their families are taken care of throughout this whole ordeal.”

‘Like a … scary movie’

Paul Randall, who lives in a neighboring building, said he saw a firefighter escaping from the building when it exploded.

“All his clothes and the whole house were just on fire,” Randall said.

Synicia Johnson was at home with her 17-year-old son in an adjacent building at the time of the blast.

Dallas Fire-Rescue spokesman Jason Evans
Dallas Fire-Rescue spokesman Jason Evans speaks to the media following an apartment explosion Wednesday.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

”I heard the kaboom sound, and I ran outside to see what was going on,” she said, adding that she saw people who’d been injured. “It was like a horror, scary movie.”

T’mya and Christina Sanders, who live in the nearby Mountain Creek Apartments, said their apartment vibrated and their furniture shook from the blast. They saw smoke and fire coming from the building as a firefighter limped down the street.

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Mayor Eric Johnson, who arrived at the scene early Wednesday afternoon, said, “It looks pretty bad, it smells — it’s a serious fire.”

“Please pray for our firefighters and for the civilians who have been injured,” Johnson said in a Twitter post that called the explosion a “terrible situation.”

City Council member Tennell Atkins, whose district includes the apartment complex, said his office down the street was evacuated about 11 a.m. because of the explosion.

Atkins and Johnson said the city was working to get resources to residents who were displaced.

The American Red Cross
The American Red Cross was helping those displaced by the explosion and fire.(KXAS-TV (NBC5))

“There are a whole lot of residents who are probably in need right now,” Atkins said. “People who live in the apartment don’t have a place to go back to.”

About 7 p.m. Wednesday, American Red Cross spokeswoman Krystal Smith said than 250 people had been displaced as crews worked to ensure the area is safe before some residents return. At 9 p.m., however, Dallas Fire-Rescue’s Evans issued a news release putting the number of displaced at about 300.

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The Red Cross set up a reception area at the Tommy M. Allen Recreation Center on Bonnie View Road to help the displaced, Smith said.

Officials did not know how many apartments were damaged.

In a written statement, Philadelphia-based Mountain Creek Apts LP, which owns the complex, said it was “in the process of gathering information and awaiting the fire department’s report on the cause” of the explosion.

Property managers were working to find accommodations for displaced residents, the statement said.

Blown-out windows
Blown-out windows are seen in adjacent building following an apartment explosion in the 5700 block of Highland Hills Drive.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)
Other recent explosions

Although the cause of the blast has not been determined, officials were concerned that it may have been the result of a natural gas leak.

“If it is a gas leak, that’s something we need to be very, very serious about looking into and understanding why that happened,” the mayor said.

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Between 2006 and 2018, more than two dozen homes across North and Central Texas blew up because of leaking natural gas, an investigation by The Dallas Morning News found. Nine people died and at least 22 others were injured in the explosions.

Among the victims was 12-year-old Linda “Michellita” Rogers. Her family’s home in the 3500 block of Espanola Drive exploded in the early hours of Feb. 23, 2018, the morning after Atmos was investigating and repairing leaks on a street directly behind the house.

Atmos discovered 28 more leaks in the neighborhood in the days after the fatal explosion.

Federal investigators later found that Atmos had been aware of gas leaks in the northwest Dallas neighborhood for more than seven weeks before the explosion that killed Rogers.

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