An explosion ripped through a Mesa apartment complex Sunday afternoon, injuring at least four people and damaging 16 units in a relentless fire that followed immediately after, fire officials said.
Eight of the apartments were destroyed, officials said.
Mesa police and firefighters evacuated residents from the Broadway Gardens apartments at 945 W. Broadway Road after the roughly 4:15 p.m. blast. Crews had to fight the fire into the night Sunday from ladders above the roof of the complex because walls were in danger of collapsing, said Mesa Fire Capt. John Jayne.
"There was that much force from whatever caused the explosion," he said.
Jayne said the cause of the fire was not known Sunday night. Firefighters were unable to investigate the source of the fire because the burning building appeared on the verge of collapse, he said.
"Any comments I would make would be speculation," he said.
Residents grabbed loved ones, pets and other belongings as they scattered around the apartment complex. At least 40 were displaced by the fire, many housed at Mesa’s Guerrero Elementary School at 463 S. Alma School Road, set up as a Red Cross shelter.
"There was a big old boom and glass started flying everywhere," said Josh Kesterson, 22, whose apartment was two doors from the source of the fire.
"You could probably hear it a mile down the road," he said, adding that he and his 6-month-old nephew were thrown across the room. "Everybody was running in every direction. One lady was saying, ‘Help me,’ and I was trying to see who it was."
Residents said the explosion pounded the other apartments nearby, knocking pictures off the walls and televisions off their stands.
"It was like a bomb," said Don Patterson, 40.
"The fire blew up like an inferno," added Nouha Salib, who said she lives above the apartment that exploded.
About 50 firefighters from Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix responded to the fire, along with hazardous materials crews.
Witnesses said people were screaming from inside or near the apartment that exploded. One man in burned clothes staggered out of the apartment immediately after the blast, writhing in pain from severe burns, witnesses said.
Asaad Woods, 11, said he heard two explosions and saw window glass shower the pavement after the explosion.
"There was this guy that came out, he was screaming," Woods said. "He was screaming . . . There was skin peeling off his back."
One man, about 35 years old, suffered severe burns and was taken to the burn unit at Maricopa Medical Center in Phoenix, Jayne said.
Paramedics also took a woman in her early 20s to Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa for lacerations on her legs. A firefighter was transported to Banner Mesa Medical Center with heat exhaustion. Another person suffered head trauma, and three others were treated and released at the scene for minor injuries, Jayne said. One woman was treated at the scene for a heart condition.
Chris Lafoe felt the blast from a neighboring apartment complex and ran to the burned man’s side until paramedics arrived.
"He was burned pretty much everywhere. (The skin on) his hands and feet (was) coming off," Lafoe said, as he evacuated the area with mother Robin Lafoe. They held towels to their faces as residents lining Sixth Avenue breathed in light brown smoke that poured in spurts from the fire all night. Dark brown smoke could be seen billowing into the sky from the apartment immediately after the blast.
Firefighters created a 100-foot perimeter around the fire for fear the apartment building would collapse. The distance was also necessary to prevent residents from breathing in thick smoke. Firefighters were ordered to wear masks because the source of the fire was unknown.
"The little old man who lived next door to the guy’s apartment was telling us there was a meth lab, or he had explosives," said resident Daniela Longoria. "We don’t have any (natural) gas here."
Robin Lafoe said many residents running from the fire were in tears over a lack of renter’s insurance.
"Most of us who live around here can’t afford renter’s insurance," she said. "Several people were just crying: That’s my apartment. Everything’s gone."
Jasmine Castillo, 5, of Tempe stopped by the scene with her parents to offer water, bandages, toys and candy to displaced families.
"We thought we’d stop by here and see if anyone needed some help," said mother Pam Trigilio.
Police continued to investigate the blast well into the evening.