EDEN — The explosion threw debris a quarter-mile away, damaged nearby businesses and rattled houses as far away as the Virginia state line.
Ed McCain, the manager of the local Papa John’s Pizza restaurant, was heading home from a late shift about 12:40 a.m. Thursday when he saw the KFC restaurant at 123 N. Van Buren Road explode.
“It shook my car like you wouldn’t believe, but there were no flames,’’ said McCain, 38, who watched a $10 bill float by amid the shower of debris.
“I was freaking out, and I just pulled over in the Sheetz parking lot,” he said. “I’m just happy to be alive.’’
The KFC closed about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday and was empty at the time of the blast. No injuries have been reported, said Eden Police Chief Greg Light, who added that he felt the explosion at his house a couple of miles away.
Light said early on that investigators do not suspect foul play.
Officials are still investigating the cause, but employees reported smelling natural gas at the restaurant earlier in the night and witnesses said it felt like a gas explosion. Some described smelling sulfur, which is associated with natural-gas leaks, just after the KFC erupted.
Residents from as far away as Draper and Ridgeway, Va., reported feeling the explosion.
Randy East said he was taking an evening break outside the Sheetz convenience store across the street the KFC when the building blew to pieces.
“I was setting a cup of coffee down, getting ready to say something, and it blew the cup of coffee out of my hand,’’ said East, who worked in the gas industry for 20 years. “It sounded like a 155 round went off.’’
He said it was a gas explosion, “one massive boom where the gas built up in a pocket.’’
Security-camera footage from nearby Eden Drug showed a violent explosion that sent fire balls into the highway and adjacent parking lots. Witnesses said they saw a few fire flare-ups but mostly smoke and rubble.
“My trailer was just shaking,’’ said Joshua Harris, recalling the shock waves he felt at his nearby Kennedy Street home.
If ruled a gas explosion, it would be the third such disaster in the United States since April 10, when a major blast in downtown Durham destroyed four buildings, killing two people and injuring 25. Five days ago in Plantation, Fla., a gas leak caused a vacant pizza eatery at a shopping center to explode, injuring 20 people, officials report.
A slew of agencies responded to the Eden explosion: firefighters, investigators from the Rockingham County fire marshal’s office, Piedmont Natural Gas officials, and Greensboro-based agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, along with numerous other Rockingham County law-enforcement agencies and rescue workers.
Piedmont Natural Gas officials on Thursday afternoon said company technicians had completed testing all gas lines in the area of the KFC explosion and deemed them safe.
Gas lines to the KFC site were promptly shut off after the utility learned about the blast from Eden officials, PNC spokesman Jason Wheatley said.
By Thursday afternoon, demolition workers had razed the structure’s splintered remains, hauling away loads of timber, concrete, dry wall, roofing and debris scattered along the busy thoroughfare.
The 900-foot-long section of North Van Buren Road in front of the KFC between Moore Street and Stadium Drive was closed to traffic for about 14 hours.
Eden’s oldest restaurant, King’s Inn Pizza Parlor across the street from KFC, sustained blast damage to its trademark stained-glass windows, but opened for business by 3 p.m. Thursday.
The concussive force left several of the establishment’s diamond-motif windows concave and splintered.
By Thursday afternoon, crews had removed the compromised panes and sent eight windows to Union Grove for repair at Statesville Stained Glass, King’s Inn owner Bill Rhyne said. He said he expects to have the 50-year-old windows back in place in three weeks.
KFC officials said in a statement Thursday that the company plans to rebuild in the same location after officials conclude their investigation. The Eden restaurant employs 20 workers, roughly six of whom clocked out two hours before the explosion.