‘You don’t want to see’

Emergency workers tend to a victim of an explosion at a gas station Tuesday in Ghent. A volunteer firefighter, a paramedic and two other people were killed at the Flat Top Little General Store on Route 19.

A volunteer firefighter, a building inspector and two other people were killed Tuesday morning when an explosion leveled a convenience store near Winterplace ski resort. Five others were seriously injured, authorities said.

The explosion occurred about 10:50 a.m. at Flat Top Little General Store in Ghent, a rural community about 70 miles southeast of Charleston, as firefighters and paramedics were responding to a report of a propane gas leak, said state Fire Marshal Sterling Lewis.

Lewis said an above ground tank capable of holding 500 pounds of propane was being worked on by Little General employees at the time. The propane tank and the store’s underground gasoline tanks did not explode, he said.

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

He said cold temperatures kept the gas close to the ground.

All that’s left of the building is a pile of debris, twisted metal framework and a sign showing the price of gasoline. Seven homes and a nearby elementary school suffered minor damage. No injuries were reported at the school or the homes.

Two of the injured were taken to a hospital in Charleston and the other three were taken to a hospital in Beckley, Lewis said.

Lewis said authorities have not determined whether any customers were in the store, which was open at the time of the explosion.

Authorities also do not know if there were any more victims. A search of the debris was halted Tuesday evening and guards were posted to secure the site overnight. The search was to resume Wednesday morning.

Beckley-based Little General Inc. had no comment on the explosion.

Gov. Joe Manchin met privately with the victims’ relatives at the Ghent Volunteer Fire Department.

“We seem to continue to go through many difficult times in West Virginia,” Manchin said afterward during a news conference, referring to a recent string of disasters in the state, including the deaths of nine people in a fire at a Huntington apartment complex.

“The hard thing is when time passes and these people are left with their memories, their thoughts and their loss. But we continue to be there for them,” Manchin said.

The Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Chemical Safety Board said it was sending a team to Ghent to assess the site. The board makes safety recommendations to industry, labor groups and regulatory agencies.

William Manning, a bartender at the nearby Bear’s Den, said he heard the explosion at his home 4 miles away in Cool Ridge. Manning drove to the store because his next-door neighbor works there. He helped carry the woman, whom he would not name, 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.

Manning said the scene was “something you don’t want to see.”

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

“I joked around with her. 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.

“I was a policeman for 25 years in New Jersey. I have never seen nothing like this,” McDonough said.

“Strange things happen.”

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