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Gas explosion levels building, injures 18 in Springfield, Massachusetts

(Reuters) - An explosion triggered by a gas leak destroyed a strip club in downtown Springfield, Massachusetts, on Friday, injuring 18 people, although none seriously, authorities said.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said the building, a Scores Gentlemen's Club, exploded at about 5:25 p.m. as gas company workers, police officers and firefighters were responding to a leak in the area.

The 18 injured people included nine firefighters, four Columbia Gas of Massachusetts employees and two police officers, Sarno said.

"Through God's mercy, we are not aware of any fatalities," Sarno told reporters, adding none of the victims suffered life-threatening injuries.

The club had been evacuated before the explosion due to the gas leak, which may have saved the lives of patrons and employees who had been inside, said Thomas Walsh, a spokesman for the city.

Images on a local CBS affiliate showed buildings with shattered windows, debris scattered in the street, and emergency services entering the area.

Witnesses described to local media a massive explosion that shook the ground and produced a huge cloud of smoke. The explosion was powerful enough to be felt in neighboring towns, Sarno told reporters.

At least 15 to 20 buildings in Springfield's downtown section sustained extensive damage in the blast, including a six-story residential building where a number of units have been condemned due to damage from the explosion, Walsh said.

The city established an emergency shelter to accommodate residents displaced by the blast, Sarno said.

Officials said state and local investigators were trying to determine the cause of the gas leak and subsequent explosion.

Last year, Springfield was hit with a tornado that cut a path several blocks wide, ripping apart trees and damaging buildings. Springfield has a population of about 150,000 people.

(Reporting By Tim Gaynor, Alex Dobuzinskis and Nick Carey; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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