EXPLOSION

Gas explosion destroys Billings home

2011-06-08T10:52:00Z 2011-06-08T17:38:16Z Gas explosion destroys Billings homeBy ED KEMMICK, JAN FALSTAD and CHELSEA KROTZER Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
Check billingsgazette.com for the latest updates on this story.
Thank you for following our continuous coverage on the developing story.


Update 4:50 p.m. - According to Billings Police Sgt. Casey Hafner, MDU and Northwestern Energy are on the scene investigating in cooperation with the other investigating agencies.

Granite is still closed between Placer and Glacier.

Police Sgt. Kevin Iffland said that street likely will remain overnight.

Some residents on Granite will be allowed to return, but three or four homes won’t be open to their owners.



Update 3:20 p.m. - Homeowners are being allowed back into their homes, street by street.

Billings Police Sgt. Kevin Iffland said building inspectors are checking foundations of houses before clearing the homes.

Iffland said homes on Cascade Street between Granite Avenue and Smokey Lane are now open. Teton and the homes east of Placer are still closed off to the public.

Iffland anticipated both of those would be open to the public within a half an hour.

“In the next half hour or so, Granite Avenue from Placer to Smokey will be the only ones closed down with the exception of ones being OK’d by the building inspectors.”


UPDATE - No one was injured in an explosion this morning that destroyed a home at 1411 Granite and spread flames and debris throughout the neighborhood.

The gas explosion destroyed the Billings home of Gary Woltermann, the mayor of Columbus, about 10:32 a.m. Wednesday.

The homes in the neighborhood have been evacuated and one home is still on fire.

No cause has been determined yet for the blast at 1411 Granite Ave., which caused no injuries but resulted in a two-block evacuation and knocked out windows at nearby Rocky Mountain College.

Mayor Tom Hanel said at a press conference that all people had been accounted for.

Police Sgt. Kevin Iffland said at about 12:40 p.m. that the gas line has been capped.

He also said that the area remained closed between Smokey Lane and Glacier Drive, from Glacier to Placer avenues. Residents were not being allowed in.

MDU spokesman Mark Hanson in Bismarck, N.D., said crews using an excavator had to dig up the street on both ends to stop the flow of gas.

"It's a loop system, so the gas comes from both directions," Hanson said.

The neighborhood after the blast is a scene of mangled trees, downed power lines, and crushed wood and metal.

Four or five other houses had all the windows and doors blown out, said Police Lt. Jeremy House.

Wolterman left his Billings home just before the explosion to attend a funeral. By a strange coincidence, the person officiating at the funeral was Judge Russell Fagg, whose father, Harrison Fagg, occupies the house at 1414 Mystic Drive, above Woltermann's on Granite. Russell Fagg at the funeral received a call that there had been an explosion near his father's home, and Fagg told Woltermann.

Woltermann 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 happened and he had not been allowed to get close to the site where his house used to be. He has owned house for 25 years, he said, and he stays there a couple of days a week.

"It's one of my favorite spots - it was," he said.

Woltermann declined an on-camera interview request, saying, "I've got some folks that are pretty shook up."

Gary Mavencamp lives at 1333 Granite Ave., five houses east of the explosion -- about same distance as to the Deschner-Lodge home destroyed by a rockfall in October. In April, contractors near this gas explosion used hydraulic jacks to pry free a 340-ton chunk of sandstone and topple the rock safely down the Rimrocks.

Mavencamp said he was on his front porch talking with a contractor when the explosion happened. It knocked the contractor off his feet although he did not appear to be hurt, he said.

Mavencamp said, “As soon as I got out, I could see a fireball” and the air was full of falling, flaming debris.

Double front doors on his house, bolted on the top and bottom with a deadbolt in middle, were torn open by the explosion, as was every door in the house. Oddly enough, he said, no windows were broken.

The blast knocked clothes out of his closet at the rear of the house.

"It must have been the concussion off the Rims" at the rear of his house, he said.

At 12:30 p.m. fire was still burning at 1412 Granite, the home of Blake and Martha Mitchell.

Martha Mitchell was at the gym at the time of the explosion and her husband was at work. Driving home from the gym, Mitchell said she saw the black plume of smoke rising over the neighborhoon

Martha Mitchell was home 40 minutes before the explosion happened.

"The important thing is that she wasn't home. We can replace the house, but not her, Blake Mitchell said.

The couple's cat, Genghis, was located by Billings firefighters, but their dog Mongo, a Shih Tzu, has not been found, yet.

People have offered them a place to stay.

David Orser, who lives 1420 Granite Ave., across the street from Woltermann's former home, said the mayor stayed at the house only occasionally.

"I was sitting in my office trying to do some work and I thought a boulder dropped on it," Orser said. He said he has a 60-year-old redwood ceiling that sank under the weight of whatever hit his roof. Pictures fell from the wall and the front of Orser‘s home was extensively damaged.

Ossie Abrams, Orser's wife, said she was sitting in her car at the dental center at Rimrock and 17th West, when "I heard this tremendous thud. I looked and saw what looked like a furnace." Orser added: "It could be his furnace on my roof... It was heavy, I'll tell you that much.

"I just grabbed my two dogs and got the heck out of there," Orser said.

Brad Nason, RMC's dean of students, said the campus is back to business as usual. The college offered use of its Fortin Center to house evacuees, but no one had shown up as of 11:45 a.m. Wednesday.

A dozen windows on the north side of campus are the extent of the damage, so far, he said.

The force of the explosion at Rocky Mountain College was so strong that people on campus thought there had been explosions in their areas, 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.


Update 12:50 - Police Sgt. Kevin Iffland said at about 12:40 p.m. that the gas line has been capped. 

He also said that the area remained closed between Smokey Lane and Glacier Drive, from Glacier to Placer avenues.  Residents were not being allowed in.


Update 12:45 p.m. - Fire is still burning at the home of Blake and Martha Mitchell, who live at 1412 Granite.

Martha Mitchell was at the gym at the time of the explosion and her husband was at work.

She was driving home and saw the plume of smoke.

The couple has not been able to get to their home to see the damage.

Martha Mitchell was home 40 minutes before the explosion happened.

Their cat and dog are inside the home.

“The important thing is that she wasn’t home. We can replace the house, but not her, Blake Mitchell said.

 People have offered them a place to stay.



Update 12:30 p.m. - No injuries have been reported and everyone has been accounted for, said Mayor Tom Hanel at a 12:15 press conference.

More than 20 firefighters remain on the scene, said fire chief Paul Dextras.

Rimrock Road has been reopened, but all streets north of Rimrock Road in the area remain closed. 

 


Update 12:20 p.m. - Gary Mavencamp, who lives at 1333 Granite Ave., five houses east of the explosion -- about same distance as to the Deschner-Lodge home destroyed by a rockfall in October. Mavencamp said he was on his front porch talking with a contractor when the explosion happened.  It knocked the contractor off his feet although he did not appear to be hurt, he said

Mavencamp said, “As soon as I got out, I could see a fireball” and the air was full of falling, flaming debris. 

Double front doors on his house, bolted on the top and bottom with a deadbolt in middle, were torn open by the explosion, as was every door in the house.  Oddly enough, he said, no windows were broken. 

The blast knocked clothes out of his closet at the rear of the house.

“It must have been the concussion off the Rims” at the rear of his house, he said. 


Update 12:10 p.m. - Woltermann had left his house at 1411 Granite Ave. just 30 minutes before the explosion to attend a funeral.  By a strange coincidence, the person officiating at the funeral was Judge Russell Fagg, whose father, Harrison Fagg, occupies the house at 1414 Mystic Drive, above Woltermann’s on Granite.  Russell Fagg at the funeral received a call that there had been an explosion near his father’s home, and Fagg told Woltermann.

Woltermann drove home “as fast as I could without a police escort.”

He said he had not heard any explanation of what happened and he had not been allowed to get close to the site where his house used to be.  He has owned house for 25 years, he said, and he stays there a couple of days a week.

“It’s one of my favorite spots – it was,” he said.

Woltermann declined an on-camera interview request, saying, “I’ve got some folks that are pretty shook up.” 


Update 11:50 a.m. - MDU spokesman Mark Hanson in Bismarck, N.D., said his company cannot confirm an earlier statement that the explosion was caused by a rock falling on a house and hitting the gas meter.

“We’ve heard that from some other people, but it hasn’t been confirmed,” Hanson said.

Crews and an excavator are on the scene trying to shut off the gas.

“We have to dig up the street on both ends of Granite Avenue to pinch it off,” he said. “It’s a loop system, so the gas comes from both directions.”

Meanwhile, Rocky Mountain College dean of students Brad Nason said the campus is back to business as usual. The college offered use of its Fortin Center to house evacuees, but no one has shown up as of 11:45 a.m. Wednesday.

Windows on the north side of campus are the only campus damage noted so far, he said.

Update 11:35 a.m. - The house that was destroyed belonged to Gary Woltermann, mayor of Columbus and owner of Git’s convenience store, according to David Orser, who lives across the street at 1420 Granite.  Orser said Woltermann stayed at the house only occasionally.

“I was sitting in my office trying to do some work and I thought a boulder dropped on it,” Orser said.  He said he has a 60-year-old redwood ceiling that sank under the weight of whatever hit his roof. Pictures fell from the wall and the front of Orser‘s home was extensively damaged.

Ossie Abrams, Orser’s wife, said she was sitting in her car at the dental center at Rimrock and 17th West, when “I heard this tremendous thud.  I looked and saw what looked like a furnace.”  Orser added: “It could be his furnace on my roof…  It was heavy, I’ll tell you that much.

“I just grabbed my two dogs and got the heck out of there,” Orser said.

Directly across the street from the house that exploded is a house is owned by Blake Mitchell, a physician, Orser said.


Update 11:26 a.m. - An MDU spokesman said firefighters were evacuating a two-block area around the explosion.


Update 11:24 a.m. - The force of the explosion at Rocky Mountain College was so strong that people on campus thought there had been explosions in their areas, according to RMC’s dean of students Brad Nason.

“It’s just a huge plume of black smoke and flames shooting 50 or 60 feet in the air.

We were in the building when it happened, and everyone thought something had exploded in their building, so we evacuated the buildings immediately,” he said.

Several hundreds 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.

MDU confirmed that a rock fell off the Rimrocks, hit a house and punctured a natural gas line.

Nason said that the rock fell about 300 to 400 yards west of the house at 1313 Granite Ave,. that was recently demolished after it was hit by a rock last October.  On April 25th, crews toppled a 340-ton slab of sandstone to prevent more rock falls.

“When I looked up there, that’s the first thing I looked for,” Nason said. “I couldn’t see where a rock calved off the rims. It may be behind a tree.”

At a minimum, campus buildings lost windows and Nason said crews are repairing the problems.

“We’ve got some dangerous glass hanging above desks,” he said.

Evacuees are being sent to RMC’s Fortin Center.

 


Update 11:17 a.m. - The scene on Granite Avenue was a shambles.  One house appeared completely destroyed; another was in flames.  A next-door home had a picture window blown out; the next house had extensive roof damage.  A small flame was still burning in the center of the destroyed home.  Shards of plate glass littered the street and poked out of lawns.  A power line and junction box were down. 

The area of the explosion was to the west of where the Deschner-Lodge home was destroyed by a rockfall last October.  Crews removed the rock, removed more unstable rock and finished demolition in May. 

 


Update 11:05 a.m. - Montana Dakota Utility's director of corporate communications Rick Matteson in Bismarck, N.D., said the gas explosion about 10:35 a.m. Wednesday was a natural event.

"A rock fell off the Rimrocks, hit a house and a gas meter," Matteson said.

MDU crews are on the way, he said.

 


Update 11:02 a.m. - The neighborhood of Granite and Placer drive is a scene of mangled trees, downed power lines, and crushed wood and metal.

One house exploded and four or five other houses had all the windows and doors blown out, said Lt. Jeremy House, BPD,

Ladder truck spraying down structures.

Traffic is blocked on Rimrock beginning at 13th Street West. 

 


Initial report 10:50 a.m. - Crews are responding to an emergency at Placer Drive and Granite. It appears a house may have exploded and another house is on fire. The streets are being closed and at least four fire crews are headed to the scene.

Windows have been blown at buildings at Rocky Mountain College.

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