Gas ex­plo­sion rocks Port­land shop­ping district, in­jur­ing 8

Malta Independent - - WORLD -

Fire­fight­ers who re­sponded to what should have been a rou­tine call about a gas leak in Port­land, Ore­gon, likely saved lives when they de­cided to evac­u­ate the build­ing and pulled a fire alarm to warn hold­outs just min­utes be­fore a pow­er­ful ex­plo­sion, of­fi­cials said.

The blast shortly after 9:30 a.m. Wed­nes­day in a pop­u­lar shop­ping district in­jured eight peo­ple and ig­nited a fire that sent a plume of smoke over the heart of the city.

Three fire­fight­ers, two po­lice of­fi­cers and three civil­ians were hurt, and one of the fire­fight­ers un­der­went hours of surgery for a bro­ken leg, Port­land Fire Chief Mike My­ers said at an af­ter­noon news con­fer­ence. None of the in­juries ap­peared to be life-threat­en­ing.

City of­fi­cials said a catas­tro­phe was averted by speedy work from fire­fight­ers and po­lice who cleared the area of peo­ple be­fore the blast.

“There are a lot of peo­ple alive” who might not be “but for the ex­cel­lent work by our first re­spon­ders,” Mayor Charlie Hales said.

A build­ing that housed a bagel shop and a beauty sa­lon in the pop­u­lar NW 23rd Street shop­ping district was re­duced to rub­ble, and its smol­der­ing roof was splayed across the road.

The walls and win­dows of a nearby build­ing were blown out, de­bris was ev­ery­where and busi­nesses three blocks away re­ported that their doors flew open from the force of the blast.

Fire­fight­ers swarmed the scene and dumped wa­ter from lad­der trucks onto the smok­ing wreck­age. Dozens of busi­ness own­ers and res­i­dents were still barred from the area as night fell Wed­nes­day.

NW Nat­u­ral re­leased a time­line say­ing the ex­plo­sion oc­curred at 9:38 a.m. — a time when many busi­nesses were still closed.

Port­land’s NW 23rd Street — nick­named “Trendy Third” — is packed with bou­tiques, bars and restau­rants. Many are on street level with pricey apart­ments on the up­per lev­els and a day care fa­cil­ity in the vicin­ity.

The util­ity said it got a call at 8:55 a.m. say­ing a con­struc­tion crew had hit a gas line. Au­thor­i­ties and util­ity work­ers re­sponded in 15 min­utes and evac­u­ated the build­ing, NW Nat­u­ral CEO David An­der­son said at the new con­fer­ence.

Peo­ple in the neigh­bor­hood re­ported smelling gas as they were evac­u­ated and later felt the ex­plo­sion. The util­ity hasn’t de­ter­mined what caused the gas to ig­nite, An­der­son said at the news con­fer­ence that it was an ex­tremely rare event that re­quired a cer­tain amount of am­bi­ent gas, an en­closed space and an ig­ni­tion source. An em­ployee at a nearby kitchen ac­ces­sories store said he was in the wash­room when he felt a huge ex­plo­sion and emerged to find thick smoke and haze. Scott Ber­gler said 15 win­dows in the first-floor store were blown out.

As he evac­u­ated the Kitchen Ka­boo­dle shop, Ber­gler saw a fire­fighter on the ground who had been knocked flat by the blast.

“He was ob­vi­ously in shock and crawl­ing and hav­ing a hard time stand­ing up,” said Ber­gler, who re­mained shaken by the or­deal as he gath­ered with co-work­ers in a park­ing lot.

Au­thor­i­ties cred­ited fire­fight­ers and po­lice of­fi­cers with sav­ing lives by re­act­ing quickly to evac­u­ate the build­ing.

One young fire lieu­tenant in par­tic­u­lar — the one with the badly bro­ken leg — made sev­eral crit­i­cal de­ci­sions that likely saved lives, said My­ers, the fire chief.

Lt. Peter St. John po­si­tioned the fire trucks in such a way that they were out of the blast zone and then ran into the build­ing to pull fire alarms when fire­fight­ers re­al­ized not ev­ery­one had evac­u­ated as or­dered, he said. He and other fire­fight­ers also de­cided to don their air packs and pro­tec­tive masks be­fore the blast be­cause some­thing “just didn’t feel right,” My­ers said.

“That man saved the lives of a lot of peo­ple today and a lot of fire­fight­ers,” he said. “He had very good in­stincts today. He showed good judg­ment.”

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