In an area challenged by one of the nation's toughest economies, any family business keeping its doors open is a success. In the working-class Detroit suburb of Wayne, the high-end William C. Franks Furniture store stood out.
A suspected natural gas explosion Wednesday morning leveled the 50-year-old business, critically injuring the owner, Paul Franks, and killing two employees, salesman James Zell, 64, and clerical worker Leslie Machniak, 54.
The blast destroyed "one of the anchor businesses in the town of Wayne for years," said Mayor Pro-Tem Donna McEachern, who has known Paul Franks for more than three decades. "This is one less very important business we have in the community."
Franks' father founded the store in the city of 19,000 about 15 miles from Detroit, and McEachern said the blow to the business community comes as the city mourns the deaths of Franks' employees and prays for his recovery. Franks, a staple in the community, was in critical condition Thursday in the burn unit at the University of Michigan medical center in Ann Arbor.
Utility and fire officials focused Thursday on determining whether a natural gas explosion leveled the store.
Consumers Energy spokeswoman Debra Dodd said crews worked overnight to repair a gas main behind what had been the Franks Furniture store and removed a section of pipe for investigation.
She said it was not clear if the main was damaged in the explosion or if it had been ruptured prior to the massive blast. An investigation into the cause could take weeks, if not months, she said.
"Nobody wants to jump to any conclusions," she said, but added, there are "things about it that are characteristic" of a natural gas blast.
Dodd said the utility had received two calls of a possible gas leak in the area in the hours before the blast and that a worker had been trying to track down the source when the explosion took place.
'Neat and clean'
Wayne Fire Chief Mel Moore said Thursday that fire officials had inspected the store about two weeks ago and found no major problems. Moore described the store as "neat and clean."
Early Thursday, before work crews arrived, the main street through Wayne was largely quiet in contrast to the hectic and busy scene a day earlier. Large garbage bins lined the road where emergency vehicles had pulsed Wednesday.
Portions of the collapsed roof, rubble, and upended and broken furniture filled the store's shell. Debris-encrusted armoires and entertainment centers still stood in one small area of the store spared from the collapse.
One framed piece of art still adorned a wall. The cinema-themed picture read: "Live Life. There is No Take Two."
A "special sale" tag hung beneath it.
The gaping hole in the heart of the four-block business district likely will affect other merchants, particularly veterans such as the Northside TrueValue Hardware and startups like the Karma Coffee Shop.
Searchers had rescued store owner Franks shortly after the blast. Workers recovered the bodies of Zell and Machniak, both of Westland, on Wednesday night.
Moore said crews were able to get to Franks because he was near the back of the building. The other two were "trapped amid the debris" and unable to get out, he said.
Zell and Machniak died of multiple injuries from the explosion and the collapse of the concrete roof, the Wayne County medical examiner's office said. The blast was so huge that it shattered the windows of nearby businesses and was felt miles away.
Environmental Protection Agency officials sifted through the wreckage Thursday to check for signs of asbestos and other hazardous materials. Moore said crews planned to clear the area after the federal officials completed monitoring and testing at the site.
Franks' family issued a statement through the hospital expressing appreciation for the support and concern of the community.
"We are focused on his care and treatment at this time and we ask that you respect our privacy. Our concern extends to all others affected by today's tragedy," the statement said.
McEachern, 69, said Franks' business survived in a chain-dominated, discount-driven industry because people immediately grasped his integrity.
"With Paul, you knew you were on a level playing field — he wasn't going to try and sell you something that wasn't worth what you were paying for," she said. "You knew when you bought from Paul you had good quality, good service.
"An honest businessman was standing before you."
Associated Press writers Ed White and David Aguilar in Detroit contributed to this report.