Ken Ritter & Scott Sonner, Associated Press
Update July 9, 2:40 p.m.
(AP) — Nevada's state fire marshal says a small explosion in a basement boiler at a University of Nevada, Reno dormitory caused a natural gas leak that triggered a much larger blast last week, severely damaging two dorms and injuring eight people.
Fire Marshal Bart Chambers said Tuesday the initial explosion occurred Friday afternoon while a contractor was working on a boiler that had suffered mechanical problems and was shut down earlier last week. The cause of that first explosion remains under investigation.
The larger blast blew out walls and windows in Argenta and Nye halls. Both have been determined to be structurally sound but are expected to remain closed for at least a year.
University officials say they're trying to establish living arrangements for about 1,300 students for the fall semester, including the possibility of housing some at nearby hotel-casinos.
Anxious students and university administrators awaited word Monday about the structural safety of two University of Nevada, Reno, dormitories that usually house 1,300 students after a pair of explosions injured eight people but none seriously.
While local and state fire officials investigate the cause of the blasts, engineers were measuring whether Argenta and Nye halls were structurally sound following Friday's explosions, Nevada University Board of Regents Chairman Jason Geddes told The Associated Press.
Geddes said basement flooding had abated, and administrators hoped to have answers about building safety by Tuesday.
"All my belongings are in a building that may be lost forever," said Liz Vasquez, a 20-year-old summer-session student from Las Vegas who said she left her first-floor room at Argenta Hall after a small blast about 1 p.m. Friday and was across the street when the larger explosion occurred minutes later. Vasquez escaped injury.
"All summer residents and staff are safe and accounted for," the university said in an internet notice tallying the number of displaced summer-session students at about 200. It credited "fast-thinking (dorm) staff who evacuated Argenta Hall following an initial explosion."
The statement said officials don't expect that the seven-floor Argenta can house students for the upcoming fall semester and the eight-story Nye may not be used either. The semester begins in less than seven weeks.
Geddes, who provided the residence hall student total, noted that Argenta also hosted a buffet-style dining hall serving six surrounding dorms. Argenta opened in two phases, in 2000 and 2004. Nye is the oldest dorm on campus.
Housing assignments for the fall semester are being delayed, the university said.
Summer classes resumed Saturday, and Vasquez took a chemistry exam on Monday. She faces two more finals this week.
In a telephone interview, the public health major said officials retrieved her backpack, laptop computer and passport from her damaged room, and she has been relocated to a nearby dorm. Vasquez said she was wearing clothes donated by Walmart and church groups.
"They're all trying so hard to take care of us," Vasquez said.
Officials have said foul play was not suspected in the explosions, which university officials blamed on "a possible mechanical failure."
Some students reported smelling natural gas. Geddes said he was told technicians were servicing a gas-fired boiler and plumbing system in the Argenta Hall basement just before the explosions.
Someone pulled a fire alarm before the second blast, Reno city spokesman Jon Humbert said. It was not immediately clear if firefighters arrived between the small and larger explosions.
In a statement, Reno Fire Chief David Cochran said probes of the explosion had been turned over to state officials.
Humbert said decisions about structural soundness would be made by the state fire marshal.
Kim Yoko Smith, spokeswoman for state Fire Marshal Bart Chambers, said the investigation was continuing.