A fire and explosion that sent nine people to area hospitals from Villa Park VFW Post 2801 likely was triggered by a welding mishap, authorities said Wednesday.
Four people remained hospitalized Wednesday, two in critical condition, authorities said, while the other victims were treated for minor injuries and released.
How to helpA relief fund has been established to accept donations. Donations can be made to:
VFW Post 2801 Relief Fund
c/o West Suburban Bank
40 E. St. Charles Road
Villa Park, IL 60181
Post Cmdr. Dennis Geiseman said he has spoken to the families of all four victims and he expects them all to be released by Friday.
"The four that remain hospitalized today are all post members who bravely and calmly followed protocol to ensure the evacuation of the estimated 70 people in the building," he said. "Their prompt action undeniably saved lives. We are very proud of them and wish them all a swift recovery."
Villa Park fire Lt. Mike Barton said a "thick, chunky smoke began piling up" about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday when welders were repairing welts, caused by armor-piercing ammunition, in a metal backstop at the end of the VFW's basement gun range at 39 E. St. Charles Road.
Barton said the post members repairing the wall likely did not know the walls and ceiling of the range were insulated using an egg crate acoustical foam that is highly flammable.
"We're still investigating but it is very likely those hot temperatures caused by the welding ignited the foam behind the wall," Barton said. "Once that stuff takes off, it spreads very quickly. That range is 70 feet long and 25 feet wide and it filled with a very thick, caustic, choking smoke in a matter of seconds."
The welders tried to battle the fire themselves, Barton said, but were overcome by the smoke. They quickly began urging the nearly 70 other people in the building for a weekly bingo game to evacuate.
The range was designed in the 1940s as an encased concrete bunker or bomb shelter. The sealed bunker caused the pressure from the heat and smoke to increase rapidly. The smoke quickly filled a staircase and the pressure blew the doors open.
"Victims described the scene as a backdraft when the door blew open but it was smoke that needed a place to go," Barton said. "Pressure needed to go somewhere and it went right up the stairs and out."
There were several weapons and rounds of ammunition in the range but Barton said they were all properly secured and stored and were unaffected by the explosion.
The brick and concrete building is still structurally sound but Barton said there is at least $150,000 worth of smoke and water damage to the interior.
"It'll be quite a while before they'll be able to get back inside," he said. "The smoke damage alone is still making it difficult to breathe in there."
In the meantime, Geiseman said, both the village and the Odeum Sports and Expo center have offered their meeting rooms for the post.