At a time when hospitals across the country have been upended by a deadly pandemic, the work that two men were performing at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Connecticut on Friday morning was relatively routine.
The workers — one a Navy veteran who was employed by the Veterans Affairs health care system and the other a contractor — were replacing a leaking steam pipe, officials said. It was a common issue at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in West Haven, Conn., an aging campus built mostly in the 1940s and 1950s.
But what should have been a routine job ended in tragedy when an explosion occurred, killing both men and injuring three other people, officials said.
“This is a profoundly sad and tragic day for everyone in Connecticut, and everyone around the country who cares about veterans,” Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said at a news conference.
As of Friday afternoon, neither of the victims had been publicly identified, and the precise cause of the explosion remained under investigation, the authorities said.
The men’s deaths struck a devastating chord coming not only just two days after Veterans Day, when the country paused to honor its military service members, but also at time when Connecticut hospital workers are grappling with a surge in virus patients.
“It’s a tragedy in the middle of a pandemic,” Gov. Ned Lamont said at the news conference.
The contractor who died worked for Mulvaney Mechanical, a mechanical contracting and construction firm based in Danbury, Conn., the company’s vice president, Charles Brough, said in a statement.
Alfred Montoya, the director of Connecticut’s Veterans Affairs health care system, said the partner of the Navy veteran who died told him that the man chose to work for the V.A. because he felt it was important to help care for fellow veterans.
“He wanted to give back to those men and women who fought so hard,” Mr. Montoya said. “And it’s moments like that that really tear at your heart, at your soul.’’
The explosion took place around 8 a.m., Mr. Montoya said, at a building on the edge of the West Haven campus, which covers about 47 acres and is just miles from downtown New Haven.
The building does not provide patient care, and no patients were believed to be injured.
Earlier on Friday, Mr. Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, called for a “full, complete, searching investigation” as to the explosion’s cause.
Later, at the news conference, he suggested that the incident may have been linked to the West Haven facility’s aging infrastructure, saying that the mechanics involved in the repair work had been an “important factor” in the explosion.
“This building has passed its sell-by date,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “It’s on a list to be replaced, but it has not yet been reached.”
The V.A. Connecticut Healthcare System serves about 58,000 patients annually. In addition to its facility in West Haven, it operates a campus in Newington, Conn., and six clinics across the state.
Mr. Blumenthal has raised concerns about the facility’s operations in the past. In 2018, he asked the Department of Veterans Affairs’ inspector general to investigate problems with the sterilization of surgical tools there. He also asked for $17 million in federal funds that year to upgrade the facilities.
On Friday, Mr. Montoya acknowledged that the campus was aging and that workers faced “a constant uphill battle to maintain the infrastructure.”
It was not immediately clear whether the explosion caused any additional damage to the building, he said.
The local fire marshal and state emergency workers were on the scene Friday, investigating the accident. The Connecticut State Police sent detectives from its fire and explosion unit to assist the investigation after reports of “serious injuries” at the site, a spokesman said.
None of the three other people who were injured by the blast had life-threatening injuries, officials said.
Patient care was not interrupted at the facility on Friday, Mr. Montoya said. The hospital has been involved in providing coronavirus-related care, and Gov. Lamont gave an emotional thanks to the doctors and nurses there.
“We appreciate every ounce of energy you’re putting in to put this pandemic behind us,” he said. “And the two guys who lost their life in that steam blast, the Navy veteran — they were here fighting for your lives as well.”