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Explosion at Florida strip mall injures 21

Twenty-one people were injured in an explosion at a South Florida strip mall Saturday, with two of the victims described as being critically hurt, emergency responders said.

Officials said earlier Saturday they were looking into a gas leak as the possible cause of the blast, which occurred around 11:30 a.m. in a strip mall in Plantation. But Joel Gordon, the deputy chief of the Plantation Fire Department, said in an interview Saturday afternoon, “At this point, we do not have a cause.”

Social media posts showed widespread damage to the retail center, which is about 30 miles north of Miami and home to an LA Fitness gym and several restaurants. Gordon said the cause of the explosion had not been confirmed, and Cherie Jacobs, a spokeswoman for TECO Peoples Gas, said the company was working with fire officials to investigate the cause.

“I don’t know that there was a leak,” Jacobs said. “Our first priority is ensuring the area is safe. We have shut off the gas.”

The company serves seven or eight customers in the strip mall, Jacobs said, but she did not know whether it served the specific site where the explosion took place.

Arson and explosives investigators from the Miami division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were on the scene Saturday afternoon, the bureau said on Twitter.

The two patients in critical condition were taken to Broward Health Medical Center, Gordon said at a news conference Saturday. Thirteen patients were taken to Westside Regional Medical Center. Jenny Mackie, a spokeswoman for the hospital, said 12 were in good condition and one was in serious condition.

It was not immediately clear where the other victims were taken.

Daniel Hubert, 20, said he had been working out at the fitness center when he felt the building shake moments before he heard the explosion.

“A lot of the ceiling started to fall, and the weights were shaking from the shock of the explosion,” Hubert said. “Everyone was running around. It was a lot of chaos.”

As many as 300 people started running for the emergency exits, he said.

“When I was leaving, the police were telling everyone to vacate the premises,” Hubert added. “My truck windshield was cracked, and the explosion literally opened my truck door. A lot of cars were totaled.”

About half of the LA Fitness center’s exterior was destroyed, Hubert said, and the restaurant across from it was severely damaged. The only thing that remained standing were the walls, he said.

“I had friends 2 to 3 miles away, and they said they thought there was an earthquake,” Hubert said.

Jack Decker, 40, felt the blast from his kitchen, which he said was about 750 feet from the explosion.

“All of a sudden, you heard a really loud boom,” Decker said. “You felt the ground shake under your feet.”

Decker said he immediately grabbed his girlfriend and ushered her out the front of the house.

“I didn’t know what was happening, if it was a plane crash or bomb,” Decker said. “Everything slowed down. You’re not really thinking straight.”

Soon, other neighbors came out onto the street, he said.

“Two sets of my sliding glass doors were blown out,” Decker said. “They came off the tracks, and one shattered into the house. There’s a crack in a beam that supports our patio, and Sheetrock fell and broke a chair or two.”

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