DETROIT (AP) – Newly released audio and video recordings reveal chaos, calm and acts of charity in the aftermath of a suspected gas main explosion that leveled a Detroit-area furniture store, leaving two employees dead and critically injuring the owner.
The recordings obtained by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Information Act request include 911 calls, police and fire radio traffic and images captured by cameras mounted to police cars and inside a nearby business.
The audio recordings reveal how police and fire officials scrambled to get to those inside William C. Franks Furniture in Wayne on Dec. 29, while keeping peace outside.
The video footage doesn’t show the event itself, but one of the police car cameras does show debris flying through the air and landing on the street and smoke lifting into the air. An officer then jumps out of his car and attends to a passerby who appears to have been injured by flying glass.
“What the hell happened to that place?” the man asks the officer.
Video shot from inside the neighboring Northside hardware store shows that building shaking at the time of the explosion and employees and customers scurrying outside to see what occurred. One woman, a clerk, covered her ears as the explosion rocked the store and signage inside swayed back and forth.
Meanwhile, Wayne police Sgt. Tom Warren and dispatcher Colleen Sondgerath fielded dozens of calls in the hours after the blast, many from concerned citizens.
“It’s a zoo. It’s chaos down there right now,” Warren told one caller.
The dispatch calls also reveal efforts by Warren and Sondgerath to coordinate the many area police and fire agencies who lent support to the operation.
“Oh my God. We have the entire city on Wayne Road,” Sondgerath said. “Actually, the entire county.”
At one point, tempers became short between the dispatcher and a sister of one of the two people killed in the explosion.
Laurel Hunter told the AP on Wednesday that she called 911 simply to get information about her sister, 54-year-old Leslie Machniak. The voice on the other end of the phone line was “rude,” Hunter said. The assistance given was “just horrible,” she added.
Hunter was at home – a mile and a half from the furniture store – when the explosion shook her house. She turned on television news reports and “knew” Machniak was inside the store.
“That’s why I called,” Hunter said. “I was distraught. I was very upset. I was almost hysterical. Actually. If I didn’t have a friend with me, I don’t know what would have happened.”
Sondgerath answered her 911 call, but had little to tell Hunter, who offered her phone number.
“No. I can’t take phone numbers of anybody right now, ma’am,” Sondgerath responded.
Hunter asked, “Well, how are we going to find out what happened to her?”
“OK, we don’t even know. OK?” said the dispatcher, sounding a bit agitated. “I can suggest that you call back.”
Hunter continued, “Well, that’s not very helpful, because my sister could be dead.”
Sondgerath said there was no word about fatalities and that an investigation was ongoing. She suggested again that Hunter call back.
“She was rude to me. I was just trying to find out what I should do,” Hunter recalled Wednesday. “I knew that this was a horrible thing. I knew my sister was there.”
Hunter said she later waited 12 hours in the police station, “and then I started to feel like I was going to have a heart attack, so I had to go home. I was ill.”
“My friend said I should have filed a complaint, but it was such a tragedy and I was so distraught over my sister’s death that I just let it go,” she said.
Dispatchers were extremely busy at that time, Wayne police Sgt. Bruce Wolfgram told the AP on Wednesday.
Wolfgram said officers were giving Machniak’s husband regular updates that day. The officer declined to comment further until officials reviewed the recording.
Machniak died in the explosion along with James Zell, 64. Zell’s loved ones also called police that day to inquire about him.
The business’ owner, Paul Franks, remains hospitalized in good condition, officials at the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor said Wednesday.
Not all the calls on the day of the explosion were tense. The owner of an area restaurant also called authorities that day, not looking for help but giving some aid of his own. He offered to bring coffee to the police and firefighters on scene, a gesture that was gladly accepted.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)