CHANDLER, AZ – Four men are still on the long road to recovery after a gas leak blew up a shopping mall in Chandler.
The explosion occurred on August 26 near Ray and Rural roads.
Platinum Printing blew off the roof while the two owners and the general manager worked inside, unaware that natural gas had leaked into their building.
Now, four months after the explosion and for the first time, one of these men shares what it was like to be inside this building, and the months of hardship that followed.
Thursday started like any other for Parker Milldebrandt.
The 29-year-old Cardinals fan said goodbye to his wife and went to work at Platinum Printing.
“I was the general manager. So I was sort of running part of the print shop, helping customers, [and] just got the job done,” Milldebrandt said.
“Did you like?” ABC15 asked.
“Loved it,” Milldebrandt replied.
Milldebrandt was writing an email that morning when he suddenly found himself on his back.
“I remember waking up and seeing the sky where there should be a roof,” he said.
Southwest Gas admitted that a previously unmapped Driscopipe 8000 pipe had leaked, leading to the explosion.
“It seeped into the building and because natural gas is lighter than air, it went to the top of the roof,” Milldebrandt attorney Buddy Rake said. “Someone may have flipped the switch or the air conditioner kicked in, and that’s all it took.”
Milldebrandt and store owners Andrew and Dillon Ryan managed to climb over debris and stumble across the front.
Glenn Jordan, who worked two doors down at All American Eyeglass Repair, was also able to drive to the parking lot.
“I remember a few people came to help me,” Milldebrandt said. “I had a guy holding a blind over me to block out the sun. And another lady…comforting me until everyone arrived.”
All the men had severe burns on their bodies. Their clothes and their hair scorched from the intense heat and the breath.
Amid the chaos, Milldebrandt called his wife, Sierra, who was nine months pregnant.
“Do you remember what you said to him? ABC15 asked.
“I said there had been an explosion at work and to come here immediately. I didn’t know the extent of it up to this point, at all.”
Milldebrandt had no idea how bad it was, as his body was filled with adrenaline.
“I actually told my dad, once I was in the ambulance…that he didn’t need to come because I was going to be home that night,” recalls Milldebrandt.
The severity of the explosion and his injuries did not manifest until he was checked into hospital.
“It was kind of like a scene from a movie, where all the doctors and nurses are waiting outside for the ambulance,” he said. “They rolled me in the sun and I just started burning, uncontrollably, all over. I remember saying, ‘Put me in the shade!'”
Shortly after this request, “they asked my name, put oxygen on my face, and that was it”.
“Do you remember what you were thinking in those last moments?
“That my wife was pregnant and gave birth any day now. And I didn’t want to miss that,” Milldebrandt replied, fighting back tears. “It was really hard.”
Milldebrandt doesn’t remember the next week.
“I was in a medically induced coma, to limit the pain I would have to go through. So they could do a more vigorous cleaning of the wounds… If I was awake, I couldn’t have taken it .”
A few days after waking up on September 6, he received the video call that his daughter, Riley, had been born.
“I was supposed to be the only one in the room, and it ended up being my mom and my wife’s mom,” Milldebrandt said. “There were a lot of video chats. All the time. My phone was constantly plugged in.”
The moment was bittersweet as the new father couldn’t be there to hold his baby or support his wife.
“It was really hard not being there for her, because we’re so close. She’s my best friend…I was worried about her and the baby the whole time.”
Milldebrandt’s wife and baby were quickly released from the hospital.
He was in the hospital for a total of 29 days, then another week for physical therapy.
“They wanted me to be able to function with a newborn at home,” said Milldebrandt, who couldn’t stand or move her hands for more than two weeks.
In high school, Milldebrandt was an athlete. He still enjoys playing competitive volleyball and hiking outdoors.
The process of getting back into the rhythm of his passions was slow.
In addition to an eye injury, 27% of Milldebrandt’s body had second-degree burns.
“All over my hands and legs,” he said. “The pain is indescribable. Even though you think anything can hurt, it’s constant and radiating…Getting comfortable isn’t a thing, really.”
Now Milldebrandt and the other injured victims are preparing to file a lawsuit.
The men and their attorneys allege that Southwest Gas and Chevron Phillips, the manufacturer of the pipe, had ample evidence to know that Driscopipe 8000 could prematurely degrade in heat and lead to dangerous natural gas leaks.
“They know where every piece of that pipe is,” said Buddy Rake, a personal injury lawyer who specializes in cases of serious burns. “They removed it in some areas but not all.”
Milldebrandt hopes the trial will lead to faster action.
“Get that pipe out of the ground. Why wouldn’t you? It happens way too often,” Milldebrandt said.
“They have an obligation to remove the pipe,” Rake said. “Yesterday was probably too late. They should have done it already.”
Southwest Gas officials have known for about a decade that Driscopipe 8000 gas lines, especially those containing stagnant gas, can fail prematurely in the Arizona heat.
Take a look at the map below to see known Driscopipe leaks across Arizona.
As Milldebrandt struggles to recover from his injuries and await a settlement or trial, he is torn – between loving life as a stay-at-home dad and eager to get back to work.
“[My daughter is] pretty cool. We’re having a great time,” he said.[But] I look forward to the day when I can go back [and work].”
And when Riley inevitably asks about her father’s scars one day, Milldebrandt will have the story and life lesson ready to share.
“I would explain it [to her] like, you never know what’s going to happen. You have to love unconditionally all the time.”