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JMU students saw ‘big mushroom clouds’ moments after explosion of Harrisonburg strip mall

HARRISONBURG, Va. – A student from James Madison University said he felt the force of the explosion that leveled a strip center, leaving five people, including three JMU students, injured Saturday morning near Harrisonburg center.

Matthew Jenkins, a sophomore at the university, said he was startled not long after he woke up.

“I just heard a loud bang and I was thrown into my wall,” Jenkins recalled. “My head hit the wall and I thought something had crashed into the building, so I looked outside and … I saw a big mushroom cloud.”


Fire crews were dispatched around noon. 8.30am to reports of an explosion along Miller Circle just off South Main Street, according to Harrisonburg officials.

When firefighters arrived, they found smoke and flames from several businesses in the strip center as well as two victims outside the structure, Harrisonburg fire chief Matt Tobia said.

“There was a barber shop, there was a vape shop, there was a music recording studio, and there was a bakery,” said Harrisonburg communications director Michael Parks.

Two people with serious injuries were flown to UVA Medical Center. At the last check on Saturday night, they were in stable condition, according to city officials.

Parks said it was not immediately clear whether these victims were affiliated with one of the center’s businesses.

Firefighters also said three JMU students were injured.

“They happened to be here at the time and they were exposed to minor injuries, probably from dirt,” Parks said.

The university said in a Facebook post that the three students from the school’s Army ROTC program had participated in a 10-mile race if they were injured. The building where the explosion occurred was approx. 30 meters (27 meters) from the start and finish line of the race, the school said.

One of the students was admitted to the hospital but was expected to be released quickly, the JMU said. Two other students were treated on the spot and released according to the record.

The Strip Mall was, according to Parks, a “total loss” and damage to other structures was also reported.

Although government Ralph Northam tweeted Saturday morning that state emergency personnel had been deployed in the area after what he called a gas explosion, Tobia said the cause was under investigation.

But officials said there is no indication of bad play.

“Certainly this is unexpected,” Parks said. “And when we try to figure out what the cause was, we hope people will keep an eye on things like this, take the necessary precautions to ensure that similar situations do not happen elsewhere in the city. “

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