SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -
A natural gas explosion leveled a strip club located next to a day care and heavily damaged a dozen other structures in Springfield, Mass.
The blast injured 18 people, many of them first responders.
Investigators were trying to figure out what caused the Friday night blast that could be heard for miles, left a large hole in the ground where the multistory brick building housing Scores Gentleman's Club once stood and scattered debris over several blocks.
Officials had already evacuated part of the entertainment district after responding to a gas leak and odor reported about an hour before the explosion while firefighters, police officers and gas company workers were in the area filled with commercial properties and residences.
"It really is a miracle and it's an example of our public safety officials, each and every day, putting themselves in harm's way, taking what could have been considered a very routine call of an odor of gas, but they took the proper precautions," State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said. "And thanks to God that they did."
Officials also marveled how the 5:30 p.m. blast occurred when a day care center next door was closed. The center's building was heavily damaged.
Lt. Gov. Tim Murray and Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno were attending a tree-lighting ceremony when the explosion occurred. Sarno said some people mistakenly thought the boom was part of the holiday event.
The explosion blew out windows in a three-block radius, leaving at least three buildings irreparably damaged and causing emergency workers to evacuate a six-story apartment building that was buckling, police said. Pieces of broken glass littered streets and sidewalks. It was unclear how many residents had been evacuated. A shelter was set up at a school.
Authorities cordoned off the center of the explosion Saturday morning as building inspectors worked to identify unsafe structures. Anxious residents gathered at the perimeter, waiting for permission to visit their buildings.
Dogs trapped in abandoned buildings barked out loudly Saturday as building inspectors fanned out across the area. One inspector said he wished he could get a ladder and permission to retrieve a dog that was barking in the upper floor of one building sealed off from residents.
Coan said his office was investigating a cause of the blast and its possible origin. The state's Department of Public Utilities was also investigating.
Sheila Doiron, a spokeswoman for Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, said the company will continue to monitor for any potential leaks within several blocks of the blast site. So far, she said, the company hadn't yet found any measurable readings.
Doiron said the company also didn't find in its records any gas odor calls to the area where the strip club was located.
The victims were taken to two hospitals in the city. None of their injuries was considered life-threatening, officials said. Those injured were nine firefighters, two police officers, four Columbia Gas workers, two civilians and another city employee.
Springfield, which is 90 miles west of Boston and has about 150,000 residents, is the largest city in western Massachusetts. It's known as the home of the Basketball Hall of Fame, which is not in the vicinity of the blast.
The city has been rebuilding from damage it sustained in a June 2011 tornado.