A huge explosion rocked a neighborhood north of Rocky Mountain College on Wednesday morning, destroying one home and badly damaging several others nearby.
No injuries were reported and no one was missing, authorities said, but the explosion leveled the house of Columbus Mayor Gary Woltermann, who had maintained the house at 1411 Granite Ave. as a second residence for about 25 years.
The explosion, which was reported at 10:32 a.m., heavily damaged a house directly east of Woltermann’s and started a fire across the street at 1412 Granite Ave., in the home of Blake and Martha Mitchell. The fire burned for several hours after the explosion.
While a damage estimate wasn’t available Wendesday night, investigators expected the dollar amount would be hefty.
“It is likely that the total amount of damage will easily exceed $1 million,” Billings Fire Marshal Mike Spini said Wednesday night.
Billings Police Sgt. Kevin Iffland said the initial investigation, which involved about a half-dozen agencies, determined “there’s nothing suspicious about it at this time.”
Spini said that it appears the explosion involved a gas leak, although an official determination isn’t likely “any time soon.”
Most of the streets in the neighborhood were reopened by 6 p.m., although Granite between Placer and Glacier drives remained closed overnight, Iffland said.
Some people in that area were allowed to return to their homes, while others were escorted up to gather personal belongings. Three of the homes were too damaged to allow people to return, Iffland said.
Another house in the neighborhood was destroyed last October, when a huge slab of sandstone sheared off the Rims and plowed into the home of Jon Lodge and Jane Deschner at 1313 Granite, barely a block from Woltermann’s house. What remained of the Lodge-Deschner house was demolished last month.
Blake Mitchell put it simply.
“We’re jinxed,” he said.
Rick Matteson, director of corporate communications for Montana-Dakota Utilities, said Wednesday morning that the explosion was caused by a rock falling off the Rims and hitting the gas meter on Woltermann’s house. That statement was retracted later in the day and authorities said they had nothing conclusive to say about the cause of the blast.
Mark Hanson, an MDU spokesman, said the gas was finally shut off in the area at about 12:50 p.m., after crews using an excavator dug up the street on both ends of the block to get at the gas line.
“It’s a loop system, so the gas comes from both directions,” Hanson said.
In the vicinity of 1411 Granite, streets, lawns and driveways were littered with twisted pieces of metal, wedges of broken glass and chunks of wood and plastic. There was at least one downed power line, mangled trees and smoldering debris. The explosion blew doors and windows out in houses all around the neighborhood.
Martha Mitchell first saw the smoke billowing from the neighborhood on her way home from the gym. She had left about 40 minutes before the explosion, while her husband was at work.
“The important thing is that she wasn’t home,” Blake said. “We can replace the house, but not her.”
Their pets, a Shih Tzu named Mongo and a gray cat named Genghis, were still inside. Firefighters found Genghis early on, bringing him out in a cat carrier. It took several more hours of waiting and hoping before the Mitchells saw Mongo rescued.
Mongo smelled strongly of smoke but was unhurt.
“He’s safe!” yelled Martha Mitchell, hugging the dog. Firefighters said he was found in the master bedroom.
Woltermann, who works at Edwards Jet Center and generally stays at his Billings house a couple of days a week, said he had left his house 30 minutes before the explosion to attend a funeral.
District Judge Russell Fagg was also at the funeral, and he received a phone call saying there had been an explosion near the home of his father, Harrison Fagg, who lives just above Woltermann, in the shadow of the Rims, at 1414 Mystic Drive. It was Russell Fagg who told Woltermann of the blast.
Woltermann said he drove home “as fast as I could without a police escort.”
Woltermann, who owns Git’s convenience store in Columbus, said he had not heard any explanation of what caused the blast and had not been allowed any closer to his house than any other of the many spectators who gathered at the scene. The 2,000-square-foot house was built in 1956 and commanded a view of the valley.
“It’s one of my favorite spots,” Woltermann said, before considering and adding, “it was.”
All that remained of the home are piles of wood, insulation and personal belongings scattered across the neighborhood. Of all his possessions, the first he asked about was his white grand piano. There were no initial signs of the instrument.
What he most hopes to find would seem to be least likely to have survived the blast.
“There are photos of my kids from way back that I hope are in somebody’s yard,” Woltermann said.
They might be. Patty Fain, who lives five blocks away on 17th Street West, said she found receipts and other documents on her property just minutes after the blast. Except for some carbon splatter and some charring, the documents were in good shape, she said in an email to The Gazette.
“I found a computer casing and part of its internal systems, all of which have been turned over to the police,” she said. “Absolutely amazing.”
Harrison Fagg said he and his wife, Darlene, left their house minutes before the explosion, headed for the same funeral that Woltermann attended. They got as far as Poly Drive when they saw people transfixed, staring up toward the Rims.
The Faggs didn’t hear the explosion, but when they looked back, Harrison Fagg said, they saw the fireball and the black smoke.
“We turned around and went zooming back up there,” he said. They were home within five minutes, looking down from their yard just above Woltermann’s house. They remained there for 45 minutes to an hour, when a firefighter asked them to leave the area. Late Wednesday afternoon, they were still waiting for word that they could return.
“We really do want to get back in, because we have an extensive amount of damage,” Fagg said. Their house is 54 years old, one of the oldest in the subdivision.
Fagg discounted reports that a falling rock hit Woltermann’s house. He said his house is directly above Woltermann’s, so he didn’t see how that could have happened.
“It would be absolutely impossible,” he said.
David Orser, who lives at 1420 Granite, just west of the Mitchells, was home when the explosion rattled the neighborhood.
“I was sitting in my office trying to do some work and I thought a boulder dropped on it,” he said. The ceiling of his office, made of redwood, sagged under the weight of whatever landed on his roof, and artwork fell from the walls all over the house. Orser said the front of the house was extensively damaged.
“I just grabbed my two dogs and got the heck out of there,” he said.
Police and other emergency workers restricted access to a large part of the neighborhood, and roads were closed between Smokey Lane and Glacier Drive, from Granite south to Cascade Avenue. Residents within a two-block area were told to leave their homes and were not allowed back into the area Wednesday morning.
But by the evening, only Granite between Placer and Glacier drives remained closed. Spini said only people at 1400, 1401, 1411, 1412, 1415, and 1420 Granite weren’t allowed to return home by 9 p.m.
Iffland said that a few police officers and firefighters would be in the neighborhood overnight to keep people out of the area.
Further investigation — led by the Billings Fire Department and with assistance from police, the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — is scheduled to begin Thursday morning, Iffland said.
At 1333 Granite, Gary Mavencamp lives about the same distance from the Woltermann and the Lodge-Deschner residences. He was doing some work on his front porch with a contractor when the explosion occurred.
Mavencamp said the blast knocked over the contractor, who appeared unhurt. Mavencamp, who was standing just inside his garage, walked out and saw a huge fireball a few houses down, and the air was full of falling, flaming debris.
The double front doors on his house, bolted on top and bottom, with a deadbolt in the middle, were torn open by the blast, as was every other door in the house. Curiously enough, he said, no windows were broken.
The blast also knocked all the clothes out of his closet on the north side of the house, facing the Rimrocks.
“It must have been the concussion off the Rims,” he said.
Brad Nason, dean of students at Rocky Mountain College, said the college offered use of its Fortin Center to evacuees, but no one had shown up as of 11:45 a.m. Wednesday.
The force of the explosion was so strong that some people thought there was an incident on campus, but damage was limited to about a dozen broken windows on the north side of the campus, he said.
“It’s just a huge plume of black smoke and flames shooting 50 or 60 feet in the air,” Nason said. “We were in the building when it happened, and everyone thought something had exploded in their building, so we evacuated the buildings immediately.”
Several hundred people were on campus and rushed outside at 10:32 a.m. Wednesday, he said.
“We were just getting ready to dial 911 when we heard the sirens,” he said.
Gazette reporters Jan Falstad and Zach Benoit contributed to this story.