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'Like a nightmare'

FARGO, N.D. - At first, Mohamed Omar thought he and his family had died after he heard the explosion early Tuesday.

The 23-year-old told his family to get down as he checked the south Fargo twin home attached to the unit where he was spending the night.

Omar couldn't believe his eyes when he saw the smoldering pile of rubble where the home should have been.

He could hear his sister's screams coming from the basement.

"It was like a nightmare to me," Omar said.

The blast at 2215 15th St. S. around 12:30 a.m. sent Omar and 12 members of his family to the hospital.

Four remained hospitalized Tuesday night, including two sisters who were airlifted to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.

Omar said his sisters previously told him they had smelled gas in their twin home.

Luul Omar, 26, the one most seriously hurt, smelled gas prior to the explosion and went to the basement to check on it, her brother said.

"As soon as she went downstairs, the explosion happened," he said.

But it may be days before investigators can determine what caused the blast, said Fargo Fire Department Capt. Joe Locnikar.

Some neighbors reported a lightning strike shortly before the explosion, but it's unclear if that played a role.

"It's all guesses right now," Locnikar said.

Mohamed Omar said the family is focused on praying for his sister, who was in critical condition and in a coma Tuesday.

She and four others were in the unit at the time it exploded.

The other sister hospitalized in Minneapolis, 17-year-old Faiza Omar, is listed in serious condition.

A third sister, Hamza Omar, 23, is at Fargo's Innovis Health in stable condition.

Luul Omar's children, ages 9 and 8, also were hurt. The 9-year-old is in Fargo's MeritCare Hospital and the 8-year-old has been released.

Eight family members were in the twin home at 2213 15th St. S., attached to the north of the other unit. Six people live there and two, including Mohamed Omar, were staying there for the night.

The eight were treated at local hospitals and released to a Fargo hotel, where they are being housed temporarily by the American Red Cross.

"It's a blessing from God that we are all still alive," Omar said.

Neighborhood shaken

Jodi Hanson wiped away tears as she described the explosion that shook her neighborhood.

The blast knocked pictures off a ledge and sent a loose piece of Sheetrock falling to the ground at the Hansons' home, which is immediately west of the explosion.

Hanson called 911 to report the blast after her husband, Brian, went outside and saw the house had exploded.

"You could hear the neighbors screaming," she said.

Her mother, Candace Quick, who lives in the block east of the twin home, said the noise jolted her out of her recliner.

"It was just one humongous boom," Quick said.

Despite the late hour and steady rain, neighbors congregated in driveways to talk to police and watch emergency responders. At least one neighbor helped with the rescue efforts, Hanson said.

When firefighters arrived, they extinguished a small, smoldering fire. Two victims trapped inside the basement were rescued by about 12:45 a.m., the Fire Department said.

"It's amazing that those people got out," Hanson said. "When you look at their house, there's nothing left of it."

Crews from Xcel Energy found some gas had seeped into the ground outside the house, the Fire Department said. Xcel Energy turned off gas to the house and is participating in the investigation, spokeswoman Bonnie Lund said.

Area residents drove by the site throughout the day Tuesday to get a glimpse of the damage.

The blast spewed glass and debris about 50 feet in every direction.

A clothes basket with the clothes still in it sat in the front yard. A purple curtain hung in a neighbor's tree. Pieces of the garage door lay on the curb across the street.

The Omar family has lived in the twin home units for about three years. They came to the United States from Somalia eight years ago and have lived in Fargo-Moorhead for about seven of those years, Mohamed Omar said.

Fowzia Adde, executive director of the Immigrant Development Center in Fargo, described the family as decent and hard-working.

Adde said the Somali community is reaching out to the family and bringing food to their hotel rooms.

Eight children affected by the explosion attend Fargo Public Schools, said district spokesman Lowell Wolff. One third-grader and three fifth-graders attend Lincoln Elementary, a seventh-grader and an eighth-grader attend Carl Ben Eielson and a sophomore and senior attend Fargo South High School, Wolff said.

School counselors have had sessions with family members and are beginning to reach out to the students' friends, he said.

Luul and Hamza Omar have attended Minnesota State Community and Technical College.

The family rents from Andy and Brenda Hardy.

It's the only property the couple manage and they keep it well-maintained, Andy Hardy said. The furnace is less than 10 years old, he said.

The residences were last inspected in October 2007, said John Mrozla, a housing inspector for the Fargo Inspections Department.

At the time, inspectors found problems with smoke detectors that didn't function, had low batteries, or were improperly located. There was also a loose dining room light fixture and a broken window, screen and storm door, he said.

However, all of those problems were rectified when the duplex was re-inspected, Mrozla said.