ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The former chief of a volunteer fire department south of Chama was killed Tuesday in an explosion at the fire station that threw debris 100 feet and shattered the windows of nearby homes.
Michael Hays, who was replaced as fire chief Monday night, spearheaded the construction of the Brazos Canyon fire station in 2002, friends said.
The blast blew off the station's steel-siding walls and roof, leaving insulation, equipment and other debris scattered in the snow and hanging from trees. Three firetrucks inside the building were also destroyed.
"The whole thing is just ripped apart," Chama resident Dan Ranger said.
An unidentified person placed a call about a gas leak inside the building at 10:57 a.m. Tuesday, according to Rio Arriba Assistant County Manager Tomas Campos. The explosion occurred just after noon, authorities said.
Authorities believe a gas leak caused the explosion, although the cause is under investigation by the state fire marshal.
Hays, who was the only person inside the building, died while being transported by ambulance to La Clinica del Pueblo de Rio Arriba in Tierra Amarilla after the blast, according to Rio Arriba County Sheriff Joe Mascarenas.
"It's my understanding that (first responders) were talking to him in the ambulance," Mascarenas said. "And that he later passed away."
The community of Brazos is a forested area made up of cabins and vacation homes about midway between Tierra Amarilla and Chama. The fire district was organized in 1998 and today serves about 500 properties, according to the department's Web site.
Friends on Tuesday recalled the many hours Hays spent lobbying for funding to build the fire station, in a rural area, surrounded by cabins and trees.
"He had taken over a fire department and built it up to what it was today," longtime friend Carol Schultz said. "He did everything and anything for this community."
"He was always a go-getter," said former Rio Arriba County Commissioner Moises Morales, who was often the target of Hays' lobbying on behalf of the fire department.
Campos, the Rio Arriba official, said Hays worked relentlessly to get the fire station built.
"He's a big reason why it's there," Campos said.
Campos said the replacement of Hays on Monday night was a "friendly" move, adding that the chief was ready to step down.Hays is survived by his wife Mona, two daughters and four grandchildren, Schultz said. Hays moved to Brazos after retiring from the military, she said.