BUENA VISTA — The death toll from an explosion and fire that ripped through a gas station Friday has risen to three, while the blast continues to send shock waves through the surrounding tight-knit, rural community.
Virginia State Police have recovered three sets of human remains from the South River Market, which was leveled by the blast, Sgt. Rick Garletts said in an email Saturday.
The remains have been sent to the Medical Examiner’s Office in Roanoke for identification, which may take several days, Garletts wrote.
Police remained Saturday at the scene of the blast, at the intersection of South River Road and Old Buena Vista Road north of Buena Vista, and it was not clear if they were searching for additional victims. Late Friday, the number of confirmed fatalities was two.
Garletts did not say whether anyone else was still unaccounted for.
Four other people were injured in the blast, which shook the ground and sent flames as high as 80 feet in the air.
Authorities have not released the names of any of the victims, nor have they concluded what triggered the blast.
State police are treating the explosion as a criminal investigation because its cause remains unknown, Garletts said. While that is part of normal police policy, Garletts said Friday that the incident does not appear to be suspicious.
On Saturday, all roads leading to the county crossroads where the gas station and convenience store once stood remained closed.
Ryan Clark, who lives nearby, was driving his pickup truck on Old Buena Vista Road about 500 yards from the store when it blew up.
“It shook the truck, so I can only imagine what it was like closer to the store,” he said.
As he drove past the South River Market, Clark could see flames higher than nearby trees. He called 911, and emergency crews were soon on the scene. Four victims were transferred to Carilion Stonewall Jackson Hospital in Lexington, where one was treated and released.
The other three were transferred to other hospitals with more serious injuries.
Clark said that when he left his house about 9:50 a.m., he had planned to stop at the store for a drink on his way to Covington. He realized that he’d forgotten an envelope and went back into his house briefly to get it — which may have delayed him just long enough to avoid disaster.
“I would have been close,” he said. “It might have saved my life, who knows?”
As word spread through the Rockbridge County community, residents remembered the South River Market as a place to get the necessities of life — gas, ice, food, hunting and fishing supplies — without having to drive to more populated places such as Buena Vista or Lexington.
But just an important, they said, was the chance to see familiar faces on both sides of the counter.
Lew Hamilton, who knows the owners and employees of the business, said the store offered all that you might find at a larger establishment, but with a more personal and down-home touch.
“We had a miniature Walmart, that’s what it was,” he said. “A country Walmart.”
“It’s really hit us hard.”
As Hamilton left JJ’s Meat Shak in Buena Vista, which he owns, Bonnie Clark continued to work behind the counter — even though she is related to the family that runs the South River Market.
“We’re such a close-knit family,” Clark said of the larger community that has offered its support to her. “Everybody’s going to help everybody.”