Sunday, March 08, 2009

Bozeman Explosion and Fire, 73 hours later

Bozeman is open for business.

Bozeman has suffered such a devastation in our beautiful historic downtown, but in three days' time, the city officials and fire department and police, our public works people, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, our citizen soldiers in the National Guard, my friends and neighbors, our wonderful businesses, and people across the state have rallied for Bozeman.


The force of the explosion on Thursday morning destroyed six businesses and structures immediately. The street is still filled with rubble: bricks, timbers, cinder blocks, metal beams, and shards of broken glass, glass everywhere. The fire still smolders, but the gas is finally off and the raging fire is over. We can concentrate on recovery and investigation now, and soon, on strengthening our businesses and center of commerce, our historic downtown business district that's a jewel in the state.


Day One: the initial blast happened around 8:12 a.m. and fire ignited immediately. The blast radius is about four blocks. Witnesses at city hall, two blocks away, said they saw the roof blow off the building and come crashing back down. A heavy steel door, bolted and on heavy hinges, was blown off the back of Boodles or the Rockin' R, across the back of the lot, across the alley, and lodged midway up the cinder block wall of the empty former Bozeman TV and Appliance building. That building was so rocked by the blast that the entire structure has shifted many inches off center, the ceilings and floors have buckled and cracked, and it is almost certainly not habitable anymore. Other buildings suffered broken windows, broken masonry, damaged signs and awnings and fixtures; vehicles in the street in front of the businesses and parked behind are utterly destroyed.

For many hours on Day One, firefighters fought a blaze fueled by an eight-inch natural gas main. NorthWestern Energy workers dug up the alley behind the site and on the eastern end of the block to try to stop the natural gas flow. They installed stoppage valves, but around 9:20 that night, more than twelve hours after the blast, the gas was still not off. It wasn't quelled until about 1:15 a.m., seventeen hours after the incident began.

The response to the scene was immediate, coordinated, and so professional; I'm proud to be a part of a community with such committed people. Through that night, National Guard members took posts securing the site, securing businesses, managing traffic and emergency vehicles and staging, and I am so grateful, too, for our own citizens at the ready at a moment's notice to help our fair city.

I was desperate to get to Bozeman from our state capitol as soon as I heard about the blast. I have friends on the Bozeman Fire Department and in all the city offices, and wanted to do all I can to help. My first questions were about how long our firefighters had been on the scene--it's exhausting work, and once on scene, a firefighter is reluctant to leave. When I served as a firefighter/EMT, I wouldn't leave a scene until everything was wrapped up, and this is a multi-service, multi-day scene. I was concerned for our sheriff's deputies and police officers, who'd responded immediately, sweeping for anyone injured, then securing the scene. I asked our public works officer how our water pressure was holding up: there were two five-inch fire lines and two ladder trucks pouring water on the fire, and many more 2 1/2" lines. It's estimated that 4.3 million gallons of water were put on the fire. The water mains were emptied so quickly that the drinking water in Bozeman, completely safe to drink, did take on a turbid quality, and our water operators added chlorine to the drinking water. In a situation like this, it's a mighty good thing we're a gravity-fed system.

I asked about air quality from our public safety nurse, Stephanie Nelson, and the city answered that they were measuring air quality. Later Thursday, when the wind changed and smoke began blowing more directly toward Hawthorne School, the school evacuated the kids to the Bozeman Public Library when the air intakes began sucking in that smoke. The next day, with the fire down to a smolder, the school was in session as per usual.

Going forward, I'll work to secure our economic strength. I'm working with the governor's office and the Small Business Association on some SBA loans, and workers displaced by the blast will be briefed on Tuesday at the Bozeman Job Service. For them, there will be expedited unemployment benefits, since we recognize that they won't be able to provide the usual documents required for filing. I'll bird-dog the federal recovery money and state infrastructure money to make sure we rebuild and strengthen our fair town. Know that I'll do all I can, always, for Bozeman and for our state.

Thanks, everyone. Rally. And--Go, Cats!

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