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NTSB: Gas meter was being moved at time of school explosion

Sophie Olson, who graduated in the spring from Minnehaha Academy,cries against a fence and leaves a bouquet of flowers Thursday, Aug.3, a day after two of the school's employees died in a natural gas explosion at the school. Dave Orrick / Pioneer Press1 / 6
Christopher Hart, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, speaks at a news conference at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Minneapolis as Roger Evans, left, a senior investigator with the NTSB, listens Thursday, Aug. 3. The federal agency is investigating Wednesday's natural gas explosion at Minnehaha Academy that leveled a building and killed two people. Dave Orrick / Pioneer Press2 / 6
Undated courtesy photo of Bryan, right, and Jamie Duffey. Bryan is in critical but stable condition after being injured in a building explosion and collapse at Minnehaha Academy on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017. He is an assistant soccer coach at the school.3 / 6
Ruth Berg, 48, a receptionist at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis, died in a building explosion and collapse at the school Wednesday, Aug. 2. This photo was posted to her Facebook page in 2014.4 / 6
Flowers hang in a fence the day after a gas explosion at Minnehaha Academy's upper school in Minneapolis on Aug. 3, 2017. Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press5 / 6
School custodian John Carlson died in an explosion and building collapse Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis. Courtesy of Minnehaha Academy6 / 6

MINNEAPOLIS — Federal investigators say contractors had been relocating a natural gas meter at Minnehaha Academy on Wednesday morning, Aug. 2, when something went horribly wrong, causing an explosion and building collapse that killed two employees of the private Minneapolis school and injured at least nine other people, one critically.

"We understand this explosion happened in the process of moving the gas meter," Christopher Hart, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, told reporters at a Thursday afternoon, Aug. 3, news conference.

The work was being performed by Eagan-based Master Mechanical Inc. and the boiler room construction that Hart described was consistent with a Minneapolis permit issued for the building, which houses classrooms and administrative offices. The permit describes "gas piping and hooking up meter," but few details were available in the public records.

The company could not be reached for comment Thursday beyond a statement of sympathy and support for those affected, issued a day earlier.

Investigators have yet to speak with Master Mechanical officials, but Hart said "I would assume that would be one of the first things" the agency's team of investigators will do.

The NTSB, which regulates pipelines and investigates major gas explosions, now has control of the scene at the upper campus of the school, which overlooks the Mississippi River just south of the Lake Street-Marshall Avenue Bridge between Minneapolis and St. Paul. The scene remained cordoned off behind police tape Thursday.

Hart said the investigation would begin Friday with whether workers shut off gas inside the building and at the street. "Yes, we've heard those concerns. That is one of those things we will be investigating tomorrow."

Hart said little on-the-ground investigative work was done Thursday as investigators formed teams and awaited word from Minneapolis fire officials that the school campus buildings are safe to enter.

"We will need to go inside the building," Hart said, describing the scene as "to a layman, very complex. The damage was extensive."

Fire officials have said the explosion likely blasted out exterior walls on a lower level, which then led to floors above collapsing.

Hart said investigators are looking to speak with any eyewitnesses, including those who may have seen the explosion, as well as any video recordings of it.

He said that it could take a year for the agency to finish its work and issue safety recommendations.

"Our mission is to understand not only what happened, but more importantly, why it happened, so that we can make recommendations to prevent it from happening again," Hart said.

School in mourning

Despite the unseasonable chill Thursday, Tory Kronschabel was craving an ice cream bar.

Specifically, a Dilly Bar. "For John," Kronschabel said as she shivered outside Minnehaha Academy.

She was referring to John Carlson, an 81-year-old custodian killed in the explosion, beloved among students for his cheer, quirky humor and copious supply of Dilly Bars, which he routinely handed out to students.

"If I was having a bad day and he saw me, he'd give me a Dilly Bar," Kronschabel said. "It doesn't matter how cold it is, every kid feels better with ice cream."

Kronschabel — who was also close with Ruth Berg, 48, a receptionist also killed in the explosion and resulting building collapse — is behind a GoFundMe page to raise money for the families of Berg and Carlson.

Students, alumni, neighbors and the curious slowly drove the perimeter of the police boundary around the school on Thursday, often stopping west of the campus, where a view of the devastation could be had across athletic fields.

"I took algebra there, I took physics up there ... seems like yesterday," said Gary Sonmore, class of 1975, as he pointed to various parts of the campus buildings. A resident of Denver, he happened to be in town visiting in-laws in his native Minneapolis when the explosion occurred.

"I had to come and see," he said.

Coach critical but stable

Seven people who were brought to the hospital after Wednesday's blast have been released.

Two people remained hospitalized Thursday, including assistant soccer coach Bryan Duffey, who was in critical but stable condition, according to Hennepin County Medical Center.

Duffey's family released a statement Thursday saying he has traumatic injuries that will require more surgery:

"Bryan is in critical but stable condition at this time. We've seen a lot of positive progress and know he's getting the best care possible — but we also believe in the power of prayer and are thankful for the continued outpouring of support for Bryan and the entire Minnehaha Academy community.

"Bryan has traumatic injuries that will require more surgery. We covet those prayers for his recovery, and we ask that you also pray for the students who witnessed this traumatic event as well as the others who were injured. ...

"Words cannot adequately express our thanks to everyone involved in yesterday's rescue efforts."

'They'll rebuild'

Among other alumni taking in the scene was Carol Henry, class of 1965. (Her brother, Steve Van Guilder, was class of 1956.)

"I'm sure, with God's help, they'll rebuild," she said.

The Christian college prep school serves more than 800 students in preschool through 12th grade.

The upper campus houses grades 9-12, while elementary and middle school students are housed at the lower campus about a mile farther south on West River Parkway.

Classes were scheduled to begin Aug. 23. Administrators, who have temporarily relocated to the lower campus, are working to see whether that is possible.

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