Firefighters put out fire following explosion in Urbana

URBANA — A natural gas explosion in a building formerly used by the University of Illinois destroyed the building and sent broken glass and debris across University Avenue in Urbana, closing one of the city’s busiest streets for several hours Tuesday.

While nobody was in the building at the time of the explosion, one Urbana firefighter was treated for injuries.

Urbana Fire Chief Brian Nightlinger said firefighters were called to the former University of Illinois Faculty/Staff Assistance Building at 1011 W. University Avenue, U, at 6:05 a.m. after receiving a report of an explosion.

“When we arrived, we saw a little bit of fire in the building,” Nightlinger said. “There was glass all across University Avenue in the front of the building, and all the walls were exploded out.

“As we investigated further, we found small fires throughout the building.”

University Avenue was closed between Lincoln and Goodwin avenues as firefighters responded to the explosion.

Nightlinger said that, while the building was vacant, it still had electricity and natural gas service.

“The building was being heated, so there was an open gas line, and the power was on,” Nightlinger said. “The explosion ruptured the gas meter for the gas line, and it was producing flames. We continued to control the fire until Ameren could shut off the power and until the gas could be shut off.”

Nightlinger said the electricity was shut off before 7 a.m., and the gas was turned off by 7:30 a.m.

“The structure had collapsed around the pipes and valves,” Nightlinger said.

The cold weather complicated fighting the fire, with freezing water icing up around the building.

Nightlinger said personnel from the Urbana Public Works Department came to the scene to apply salt around the area.

“The public works crew also cleaned up the glass on the street,” he said.

He said that one Urbana firefighter twisted his ankle on the ice and was taken to Carle Occupational Medicine for treatment.

Nightlinger said firefighters had the fire out by 2 p.m. and left the scene by about 3 p.m.

He said the building was a total loss, with damage estimated at $250,000.

While firefighters had not determined a cause as of Tuesday night, Nightlinger said firefighters believe the natural gas explosion was possibly caused by a faulty valve or a leak in a line.

“We don’t know where in the building the explosion happened,” he said. “The building was completely filled with gas, so anything from a thermostat to a refrigerator or something else could have led to the explosion.”

The owner of the building was listed as the University of Illinois Foundation.

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