Propane blast rocks Chicago’s jewelry district

A propane tank explosion in a jewelry business Monday afternoon injured six people and blew out walls and windows in a Loop high-rise, showering glass on the street below and snarling afternoon rush-hour traffic, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Traffic ground to a halt for several hours after the explosion at 4:40 p.m. as firefighters and police worked to evacuate the Mallers Building, 5 S. Wabash Ave., home to many of Chicago’s jewelry stores and wholesalers, the newspaper reported. A section of Chicago’s Loop remained closed to traffic on Tuesday.

A tank of propane, commonly used for melting metals for jewelry, exploded, on the sixth floor of the 21-story building, said a Fire Department official, who could not name the business where the explosion occurred, the newspaper reported.

Besides shattering exterior windows, the blast blew out an elevator shaft wall and drove smoke throughout the building, forcing terrified employees onto fire escapes in the snow and freezing rain. The explosion frightened building occupants, who said they felt the high-rise shudder and found the halls and stairwells filled with thick black smoke, the newspaper reported.

“It was scary,” Steve Ehrmann, told the newspaper. “The entire building shook-I thought a bomb went off.”

Erhmann said he was working in his jewelry store on the 17th floor when he heard the blast. “Like an idiot, I’m staying there throwing stuff into a safe,” he told the newspaper. “My wife was like, ‘What are you doing?'”

Don Bartlett, 30, who works across the street at 5 N. Wabash Ave., told the newspaper he saw employees on the sixth floor break out windows and jump onto the fire escape. About 10 or 15 people climbed down the fire escape stairs to the sidewalk, while another dozen people were hanging out the windows calling for help as smoke billowed out around them.

Six people were treated at area hospitals. The most severely injured, 20-year-old Michael Erdman, suffered burns to his face, ears, hands and chest, according to Northwestern Memorial Hospital spokeswoman Kelly Sullivan, the newspaper reported. Erdman was transferred from Northwestern Memorial Hospital to Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, where he was in serious condition.

Three other victims-an unidentified 14-year-old girl, along with a woman, 48, and a man, 50-were treated and released Monday night at Northwestern, a hospital administrator reportedly said. A 29-year old man was treated at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center and was released, and a 38-year-old man was listed in fair condition at Cook County Hospital.

A 29-year old man was treated and released from Mercy Hospital and Medical Center, and a 38-year-old man was listed in fair condition at Cook County Hospital, the newspaper reported.

A Fire Department spokesman said investigators believe there was no one inside the sixth-floor business at the time of the blast, but they were unsure how the tank ignited.

Police on Tuesday were not allowing traffic on Wabash between Washington and Monroe Streets, or on Madison Street between State Street and Michigan Avenue, the newspaper reported. Authorities said they expected to reopen the area to traffic by the afternoon rush hour.

Commuter trains continued to operate in the area on Tuesday, though trains were not stopping at the Madison/Wabash station, CTA spokeswoman Anne McCarthy, reportedly said.