UPDATE – 11:21 a.m. FridayA faulty gas line could be the cause of a fiery overnight explosion at a Sandpiper Lane apartment complex that seriously injured three people and displaced two others, fire investigators said.
“We’re going on second-hand information,” Fire Rescue Chief Brian Nolan said Friday morning.
The explosion and subsequent fire at the Sun and Sand apartments happened after a couple in one apartment asked a friend to come over and help them light their gas stove. Investigators are reviewing at least two scenarios – one where the gas stove in the unit – number 6 — refused to light and instead sparked an explosion, and another where the gas line was leaking, causing the explosion.
“It’s one theory,” Nolan said.
Those injured included the couple who lived in the unit and the male friend who was helping them. The two residents of the unit, who were not identified, were airlifted to area trauma centers be treated for serious burns, according to Nolan. The male resident suffered burns on between 50 and 80 percent of his body and was taken to a facility in Orlando in critical condition.
The female resident was taken to Holmes Regional Medical Center in serious condition.
The third victim, identified by a co-worker as John DiMarco, was taken to Indian River Medical Center to be treated for shrapnel-related injuries.
The magnitude of the explosion sent neighbors and employees of nearby restaurants out to the scene where they found chaos.
Asked whether anything like this had happened on the barrier island before, Vero Beach Police Capt Brian Conway shook his head.
“Not in my 26 years in the City of Vero Beach,” he said.
Nolan said the call came in at about 10 p.m. and the first emergency responders arrived on scene within a couple minutes. Witnesses had said it seemed to take fire crews 20 minutes to arrive.
Nolan said the explosion was so intense that it moved a cinder block wall and the blast could be heard across the lagoon and several blocks down.
“It was pretty awful,” he said.
Greg Bracken, a manager at the adjacent Caribbean Court and Havana Nights nightclub, said DiMarco has been his friend for more than 20 years. Bracken said he was working in the restaurant when he heard the explosion and ran over to check on his friend and three other employees living in the small complex.
“I heard blood-curdling screams,” Bracken said. “People were screaming; they kept saying there were people inside. It was horrific.”
He quickly found John.
“He was burned. His arms and legs. I don’t know how, but around the edges of his face,” said Bracken.
Residents of the complex, which is made up of eight one story units, four in one building and four in another, said the whole complex had run out of propane on Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, a company had come to fill the underground tanks, they said.
Firefighters were questioning residents about who lived where and what may have led up to the explosion. At one point, one firefighter asked a resident if the contractor had come to light everyone’s pilot light.
The resident answered: “If you were home.”
By the end of the night, four units in the complex — one of the two buildings — were so badly damaged from both fire and water that they are unlivable.
The American Red Cross was on scene overnight providing temporary lodging for two residents displaced from the blaze.
Two unidentified women who lived in the complex arrived home just after midnight and got the news that their apartment was burned. Their wails could be heard over the humming engines of the fire trucks, as they screamed into cellphones.
“Everything is gone, the clothes, the furniture, everything,” said one. Another cried as she told someone she didn’t know what happened to her cat.
Investigators said Indian River Fire Rescue responded to the explosion in the apartment complex shortly after 10 p.m. with four fire engines and three ambulances from various stations in the south county. The flames were extinguished by 11 p.m. but the apartment was still smoldering hours later.
Witnesses described a giant bang akin to a truck running into a building. Bracken said the windows shook in the hotel from the blast.
“It was the most horrific thing,” Bracken said, adding that flames were spewing out the front of the apartment and the roof had blown apart littering the area with debris..
A resident of an apartment adjacent to unit 6, Brenda Erhart, who recently moved to Vero Beach from Colorado, felt fortunate that she had not been in her apartment when the gas stove blew.
As luck would have it, her sister Sherry had niece Kaylie call her up – and she left to have drinks with them about 10 minutes before the incident.
“We are just so grateful she wasn’t in there,” said Sherry Erhart.
Returning home after hearing the sirens and seeing the fire engines, Brenda Erhart waited to see if her steamer trunk filled with mementos had perished in the fire.
With the help of IRC Fire Rescue Engineer Jeff Diggs, who retrieved the trunk filled with photos and keepsakes from the fire-ravaged building, Erhart was able to salvage her most prized possessions and take them to a safe place.
This article will be updated as more information becomes available.