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Explosion destroys home, fire consumes another on Granite

Explosion destroys home, fire consumes another on Granite

From the Full coverage: Rocks and more damage homes beneath the Rims series
  • Updated

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, 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. 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.


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