Kansas: explosion in downtown Hutchinson from unexplained source

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'It's a miracle' By Dwight Jurgens A mid-morning explosion in downtown Hutchinson destroyed two businesses, damaged 26 others and left a four-block radius of businesses and the Reno County Law Enforcement Center and Courthouse without power Wed-nesday.

The explosion occurred at about 10:45 a.m. and blew off portions of the roof of Decor Wedding and Party Supplies, 20 West 1st, and the resulting fire destroyed it and its neighbor, Woody's Furniture and Appliance, 28 West 1st. Debris from the explosion and shattered glass from businesses along the unit block of West 1st covered the street, and windows were blasted from businesses on Main and Second Streets. A Hutchinson firefighter rushes toward the Decor Wedding and Party Supplies store, 20 West 1st, Wednesday after a 10:45 a.m. explosion and fire that destroyed the business and an adjacent furniture store. Photo By Sandra Milburn Immediately after the blast, employees and customers from several nearby businesses gathered on the sidewalk across the street to watch fire and police arrive, but were rushed from the area by police and emergency workers who feared a second, larger explosion. No one was seriously hurt in the explosion, though two customers of the Decor shop, Dennis Lyon and Stacy Smith, were transported to Hutchinson Hospital, where they were treated for minor injuries and released.

"It's a miracle, actually, that no one was seriously hurt, especially at 10:45 in the morning in a retail area," Deputy City Manager Ross VanderHamm said at a 4 p.m. news conference. "In another hour, I'll guarantee you there would have been people in the coffee shop next door (Allies Deli and Coffee Shoppe, 101 North Main) who would have been at risk."

The explosion turned into a fire with 40- to 50-foot flames snaking out of fourth-floor windows facing First Street and Washington, accompanied by large clouds of dark smoke billowing upwards and drifting to the southwest.

The fire was fed by a still unexplained source of natural gas - which officials at first believed was coming from an underground pipeline. Gas company crews using jackhammers uncovered all the pipelines, identified who operated them and then shut them off, Fire Chief Gary Frazier said.

"We've been in touch with all the gas companies, but it appears it may be something else, like a natural underground well. We have people coming in from out of state to help us with that," Frazier said. Police Chief Dick Heitschmidt said city officials, using documents and information provided by the Reno County Museum, believe there may be a 750-foot salt well that is emitting the gas. Frazier said the plan Wednesday night was to let the gas burn. There isn't much more damage it could do, he said, and it's not hurting anything. "Hopefully, I'll be able to tell you tomorrow that it just burned away and it's out. That would make me very happy. But until we get some geology work, I can't give you any definitive answers," Frazier said. Frazier said that until the gas source is found and capped, there's no way to know what caused the explosion. "Whether it's gas-related or nongas-related, we don't know. We haven't ruled anything out," he said. Firefighters, police, sheriff deputies, the Kansas Highway Patrol and ambulances rushed to the scene. A large part of the downtown area was blocked off: from Third Avenue on the north to Sherman, and from Main to Adams. South Hutchinson fire units were also called to the scene and Rice County EMS was asked to come in as backup for the local EMS. Firefighters in aerial trucks poured water on the two businesses from four different directions as their comrades on the ground shot water through windows, doors and into first- and second-story windows. About 10 minutes after the explosion, the front of the Decor building fell to the sidewalk, and within minutes 30-foot flames were shooting out of the second- and third-story windows at Woody's. Seconds later, the Decor roof collapsed with a thud and Frazier ordered the firefighters out of the building. Police and sheriff's chaplains arrived and went, first, to the Farmer's Market, 1st and Washington, to counsel victims and their families, and then a block south when management at The Friendly Bingo Palace, 100 West 1st, offered their building for the same purpose. With 40-foot flames now coming out of nearly every fourth-floor window on the south and east sides of the business and a large section of the west outside wall of Woody's crashing to the sidewalk, Frazier again ordered his firefighters to back off. There were two natural gas sources into the structures, and one, the pipeline, was shut off almost immediately. As the clock hit the noon hour, the control tower at Hutchinson Municipal Airport was contacted to warn news helicopters they were getting too low to the fire, and firefighters began getting concerned about one of two helium tanks in front of the Decor building and poured water on them to prevent the buildup of heat. Firefighters announced over their radios that "we're slowly getting it out" at about 12:30 p.m., and Frazier released one of the ambulances from the scene to handle other medical calls. Flames about half the size of the 40-footers that initially greeted firefighters were still oozing out the windows on three sides of the buildings, and it was another half hour before one commander reported to Frazier, "The big bulk of the fire is out. Now we have a lot of steam and hidden fires. About three-quarters of the roof is gone, but it's hard to see the far east side of it." Coincidentally, early Wednesday morning, a crane was brought in to the site of Monday morning's fire at the Hampton Inn, 14011/2 East 11th, to break down structurally unsafe walls so that fire investigators could get in and begin their work. City Fire Inspector Mike McLemore said the crane was in place and a dog trained to sniff out accelerates was brought in from Tulsa, Okla. But the downtown explosion stopped that investigation in its tracks, VanderHamm said. "They all came up to this one. We're getting the crane in, too, to knock some walls down, and when that's done it will go right back out there," he said. VanderHamm said that to get power restored to the downtown area KPL workers must get in and replace at least three power poles. They were to work through Wednesday night, he said, but it's a six- to 12-hour job. They must first knock down the west wall and then get the alley cleaned up so KPL can get in and restore power. He said power to the area may not be restored until around noon today. "And in this weather, we know that businesses that don't have heat to them may have broken pipes in the morning. We're mindful and concerned about that," VanderHamm said. At the law enforcement center, court dockets were canceled and city, county and state employees sent home for the day because of no electrical power to the building. The jail also lost its power, but Sheriff Larry Leslie said emergency generators were activated to light hallways, the office and booking areas. Lights are off in the cell blocks. Leslie said the building holds heat fairly well, but jail staff and the approximate 65 prisoners in custody would go without heat. "If it gets too cold, we can always issue them extra blankets," Leslie said. The jail annex on the southeast corner of 1st and Adams did not lose power, but the Reno County Health Center and Reno County Juvenile Detention Center did. Heitschmidt said the courthouse and law enforcement center would open this morning at 8 for normal business. He also said the majority of downtown businesses which suffered only minor damage likely would be open for business, save for the few behind the fire scene on the south side of Second. Heitschmidt said police hoped to have Main Street open to regular traffic late this morning.

Police Sgt. Steve Nelson said there were two arrests at the fire scene. One man was arrested for obstruction for allegedly ignoring police barriers erected around the perimeter of the area, and a second man was taken into custody for being drunk.

Their identities weren't available Wednesday night. Rick Hayes, of Hayes Sight & Sound and co-owner of Woody's, said Thursday that Woody's didn't have any insurance.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), January 18, 2001


There have been more natural gas caused explosions in Hutchinson. One resulted in two deaths. There is a gas geyser shooting up that they can't plug, looks like Old Faithful. Hutchinson is sitting on old salt mines which affect the natural gas flow. But a nearby gas company is being investigated for failures or defects. I wonder if the y2k-bug bit Hutchinson.

-- glOriaH watkins (watkins@dtc.net), January 30, 2001.

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