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UPDATE: Two employees die in private school gas explosion in Minneapolis

Smoke hangs in the air as emergency personnel work the scene of school building collapse at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Adam Bettcher 1 / 4
Smoke hangs in the air as emergency personnel work the scene of school building collapse at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Adam Bettcher2 / 4
Emergency personnel put water on the scene of school building explosion and collapse at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Adam Bettcher3 / 4
Emergency personnel put water on the scene of school building collapse at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Adam Bettcher 4 / 4

MINNEAPOLIS -- Two employees of Minnehaha Academy were killed after a Wednesday morning natural gas explosion tore through the private school's upper campus in Minneapolis.

Nine people were injured in the blast, which occurred about 10:20 a.m. amid a construction project in the school’s boiler room, fire officials said. At least one person remained in critical condition Wednesday evening.

The school identified the dead as 48-year-old Ruth Berg, who worked in the school's administrative office, and custodian John Carlson, 81. Carlson remained missing throughout the day, but his body was recovered from the collapsed center section of the sprawling school building complex at 8 p.m.

In announcing the discovery at a Wednesday night news conference, Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel said that crews had suspended further operations at the scene until Thursday morning. No one else remained missing.

Fruetel said the investigation into the cause of the blast, which was preceded by the announcement of a gas leak, was continuing.

All students at the school's summer program were safe. Sara Jacobson, executive director of institutional advancement at the school, said about a dozen students were in the gym and about 35 to 50 people were in the entire building complex on the campus, which overlooks the Mississippi River just south of the Lake Street-Marshall Avenue Bridge between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The nine injured were taken to Hennepin County Medical Center. By Wednesday evening, five had been discharged. One remained in critical condition; WCCO-TV identified him as assistant soccer coach Bryan Duffey. Three were listed in satisfactory condition. Among the injured in the blast: Minnehaha Academy President Donna Harris, who returned to the scene hours later, leaning on others for help.

Their blast-related injuries ranged from head trauma and broken bones to cuts and scrapes.

"We were relieved," said Jim Miner, chief of emergency services at HCMC. "We were prepared for a lot more injuries. ... We all feared for the worst when we first heard."

Minnehaha Academy recent graduate Ashley Mullen, 18, said Berg was a "friendly face -- anyone who called the school would go to her. Every day, the students would lead announcements and she would help them."

Carlson was at the school on his day off, said a friend who knew Carlson since World War II.

“He wasn’t scheduled to work today but he came in anyway,” said the friend, Dave Swanson, who stood watch during the search on behalf of Carlson’s wife, who couldn't be there.

https://twitter.com/FrederickMelo/status/892811575383470084

Bryan Tyner, assistant Minneapolis fire chief, said contractors were in the building working on the boiler system when the explosion occurred.

Minneapolis records show the city issued a permit June 7 to Master Mechanical Inc. of Eagan for "gas piping and hooking up meter." The company said it was working with fire investigators.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone involved in this tragedy and especially with the families and loved ones of those who have died or who have been injured," the company said in a statement.

A HUGE CLOUD OF DUST

Ramsey County sheriff's deputy Paul Meskan was weeding his front garden, across the street from the school, when he heard the blast and, turning, saw a huge cloud of dust. Teens who had been playing soccer in the field between were running, screaming, he said.

He ran toward the cloud and saw a man buried to his knees in the bricks of the building's collapsed walls. Digging fast, he helped pull the man out and applied a tourniquet to stem his bleeding. He looked to have bad injuries to his head and legs.

Minneapolis police officers Dean Milner and Vicki Karnik, reached the school within two minutes and found a mound of rubble with flames shooting out.

They were able to dig out one man -- somewhat conscious and appearing in shock -- and heard from two others that a woman was deeper inside.

But the heat, firefighters’ ordered them to pull back; they couldn’t rescue her.

"You just couldn't go any further," Meskan said.

"It was really hard to stop," Karnik said.

'LIKE AN EARTHQUAKE'

Jacobson, the administrator, was in a second-floor office when she heard a blast. The power went out, windows shattered and glass and ceiling tiles “rained down,” she said. She and other staff grabbed onto each others’ shirttails to make their way down a dark stairway and get out.

“It was dark so we had to feel our way out,” she said.

Josh Thurow, the school’s athletic director and girls basketball coach, was with a half dozen players having open gym at the time of the explosion.

"The gym shook, we ran for it,” he said. "Everyone in my wing got out, so we're just thankful."

Minnehaha Academy student Taytum Rhoades was one of those practicing in the gym when the building shook and lights went out.

"Parts of the ceiling sort of collapsed and things were falling. Our coach ... told us to run, so we all started running toward the exit," said Rhoades, a resident of St. Paul's Macalester-Groveland neighborhood entering her junior year.

"We left everything," she said. Then she looked down at the basketball in her hand. "Well, I guess I hung onto the ball. I wasn't really thinking."

A SURREAL EXPERIENCE

The fleeing students and coach encountered smoke-filled hallways and odd sights as they made their way outside.

"I could see inside a Spanish class. I could see what was written on the board. It was weird," Rhoades said.

She saw others stranded on a roof of a connected building. Firefighters confirmed that three people were rescued from the roof.

"When we got outside and saw everything, we were all so relieved and happy that we made it out," Rhoades said.

The damage occurred in a central, older part of the school building complex, where ninth- through 12th-graders attend.

'GAS LEAK! EVERYBODY OUT!'

Judith Lies lives across 31st Street from the gym and said the blast was the loudest sound she'd ever heard.

"Everything shook. All the cupboard doors were blown open," she said.

She and several other neighbors praised the rapid response of fire and police crews.

"And we're so thankful this wasn't a school day," Lies said.

Employees of a food-services company were interviewing job candidates at the building Wednesday, said Alex Buck, the digital media director of Taher Inc. of Minnetonka. The employees told him a message came across the school’s sound system telling everyone to leave.

“From what I have been able to gather and from what people have been telling me... it was just seconds between ‘Gas leak. Everybody out! Everybody out!’ and the explosion,” Buck said.

As school workers, students and neighbors gathered by the tennis courts in the northwest corner of campus, some Taher employees waited with tears in their eyes to learn the fate of co-workers.

Audible relief went through their small group when facilities manager Don DuBois emerged from a cluster of ambulances, head wrapped in bandages, bloodstains smeared across his arms and shirt, grinning the grin of the unstoppable.

The workers rushed to him and hugged, holding him tightly. And when he tried to pull away, some refused to let go.

PRAYERS FOR MINNEHAHA

Minnehaha Academy is a Christian college prep school and 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 a few blocks farther south on West River Parkway.

A prayer service arranged after the blast was standing-room-only Wednesday night at the school's lower campus. Students handed out Dilly Bars -- a Carlson favorite -- to anyone who wanted one. Many did.

The prevalent theme of the evening’s sermons was one of rebirth and even purpose from great tragedy.

Dave Orrick, Tad Vezner, Jaime DeLage, Lisa Legge, Andy Rathbun, Sarah Horner, Sarah Chavey and Mara H. Gottfried contributed to this report.

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