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Gas station explosion kills 4 in W.Va. - 1/30/2007

By Shaya Tayefe Mohajer
The Associated Press

GHENT, W.Va. Fumes from a leaking propane tank exploded inside a convenience store near a ski resort Tuesday, shattering the building into a pile of debris and killing at least four people, authorities said.

At least five other people were seriously hurt at the Flat Top Little General Store, where scarcely anything remained except twisted metal and a sign showing the price of gasoline.

The blast was felt at least a mile away at a store selling skiing gear.

"I thought we got struck by lightning. The whole building shook. The power went off," said Ben Monast, manager of the Ski Shop.

Authorities said the explosion happened just as a fire truck was pulling into the station in response to a reported gas leak. The fatalities included a paramedic and a retired firefighter who was also a building inspector.

State Fire Marshal Sterling Lewis said an above-ground tank capable of holding 500 pounds of propane was being worked on at the time of the blast. The gas apparently drifted into the business and exploded.

"It is our initial thought that the fumes entered into the building and had to have an ignition point," Lewis said.

The propane tank and the store's underground gasoline tanks did not explode, he said.

"Imagine putting off an explosion in your home and when you walked up to your home, the only thing you have left is toothpicks," Lewis said.

William Manning, a bartender at the nearby Bear's Den, said he heard the explosion at his home four miles away. Manning drove to the store because his next-door neighbor works there. He helped carry the woman to an ambulance.

"I barely recognized her. I couldn't believe it was her," said Manning, who cried as he talked to The Associated Press.

He had seen the woman earlier Tuesday when he stopped at the store to buy cigarettes, coffee and gasoline.

"I joked around with her," he said. "I joke around with those people every day. They're the best people."

The explosion blew candy and hot dog wrappers into trees 200 to 300 yards from the store, said Mike McDonough of nearby Flat Top.

Keli Akers said she was driving to her house about a mile from the gas station Tuesday when she began to smell propane. When she got home, she saw debris from the store falling into her yard.

Akers said her mother "felt a huge jolt" at the time of the blast.

Akers tried to drive to the scene, but she could get no further than a nearby elementary school because roads were closed. The school was also damaged.

"I know people there," she said. "But it's not just the people who work there. Everyone goes there. Anyone could have been there."

Gov. Joe Manchin met privately with victims' families at the Ghent Volunteer Fire Department. The Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Chemical Safety Board said it was sending a team to assess the site. The board makes safety recommendations to industry, labor groups and regulatory agencies.

The victims' names were not immediately released.

The gas station was about 70 miles southeast of Charleston.

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