In the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Sunday, March 8, 2009

Getting back to business

published on Saturday, March 7, 2009 11:38 PM MST

By JODI HAUSEN Chronicle Staff Writer

Emergency responders walked a tightrope Saturday, balancing fire suppression with the safety of searchers and investigators sifting through the debris from the natural-gas explosion that destroyed half a city block downtown Thursday.

One woman was still missing when search operations were shut down at dark for safety concerns, Bozeman Fire Chief Jason Shrauger said.

The source of the explosion is still unknown, he said.

Although there are six agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives trying to determine the cause of the blast, workers are concentrating on finding evidence of the missing woman.

“The cause of the incident is still under investigation,” Shrauger said. “But we’re focusing all our efforts on the recovery of the missing person.”

Authorities are still not releasing the missing woman’s name.

“We are still in the middle of our investigation,” Assistant City Manager Chuck Winn said Saturday. “Until we’ve reached any conclusions, it would be inappropriate for us to comment. We are sharing everything that’s appropriate to share.”

Retrieving precious belongings

The explosion in the 200 block of East Main Street sparked a fire and flattened the Montana Trails Gallery, LillyLu and Montana Ballet Company and Boodles. It also caused significant damage to the Rocking R Bar, Pickle Barrel, American Legion Hall, Rocky Mountain Rug Gallery and Starky’s Authentic Delicatessen.

As the investigation continued Saturday morning, Gallatin County sheriff’s deputies, Montana Highway Patrol troopers, city police officers and firefighters escorted business owners and residents into buildings closest to the blast.

One of those residents was Sean Lehmann, a professional musician who lived above Starky’s. Lehmann was not at home at the time of the blast, but his roommate was. The roommate was awakened that morning when a 2-by-4 crashed through the skylight and landed on him. He ran from the building.

On Saturday, the group of residents and business owners on the street broke into applause when they saw Shrauger emerge from a building carrying Lehmann’s stand-up and electric basses.

Lehmann had been able to recover a couple of other instruments earlier but said that in looking at photographs of his apartment taken by firefighters, it was clear his roommate’s saxophones had been buried under rubble.

Shasta Grenier and Jason Lubke, award-winning directors of the film “Class C, the only game in town,” also live in the second-story apartments. They were able to retrieve a majority of footage for a current project, along with cameras and editing gear that was in their apartment Saturday morning.

And although Grenier was pleased, she was circumspect.

“My thoughts are just with everybody who lost so much more,” she said.

Mollie McKiernan, who lives in an apartment on Mendenhall Street just behind the blast, was also downtown Saturday. After 24 hours of anxiety over the status of her cats, she was escorted into her home Friday and found them unharmed.

“My situation pales compared to what’s going on with these people,” she said.

Relatively untouched

Meanwhile some of business owners just east of the Legion hall were amazed to find little or no damage to their buildings or merchandise.

Bert Hopeman, who owns Montana Gift Corral, said his is the second-oldest building in Bozeman. Structures six blocks away had sustained more significant damage than his, he said.

“I can’t believe this,” he said, looking around his nearly unscathed shop. “There are 24,600 items in this store. We could have had one hell of a mess.

“It’s wild how it differed from building to building,” he said.

Les Gunderson, general manager of the gift store, said she’s ready to open as soon as authorities will allow.

“We’re opening five minutes after they give us the go-ahead,” Gunderson said.

Tim and Beverly Christiansen, who own Vino per tutti, next door, were amazed to find not a single bottle of wine had been damaged.

They are hoping authorities will allow pedestrians onto the block Monday.

“I feel very fortunate that we’re coming out of this so unscathed,” Tim Christiansen said.

Although the wine store has electricity, the gas and heat will be off until the fire operations are complete, which means Monday could be a chilly day in the wine store.

“It may be cold but we’ll just pretend it’s a big wine cellar,” he said.

In explaining why some businesses nearly adjacent to the blast site seemed almost untouched compared to others blocks away, structural engineer Matt Miller said the damage was caused by the concussion from the blast’s shock wave which ricocheted off the brick and glass of historic downtown structures.

A window in his own office at Willson Avenue and Babcock Street sustained a significant crack, he said.

Miller taped a fluorescent yellow sign to the intact window on Montana Gift Corral’s front door. The sign, like those on many doors on both sides of the block, indicated that the building had been inspected and was structurally sound.

Seeing for themselves

As firefighters continued to fight the still-burning fire in the rubble, people gawked from newly reopened side streets and from store windows on the south side of Main Street.

HomePage Café owner Bruce Muller served up coffee, pastries and sandwiches Saturday afternoon to patrons who had entered his business from the alley south of Main Street.

Business was somewhat brisker than a typical Saturday, Muller said, attributing it to people wanting to see the blast site and support downtown businesses.

“There’s a lot of sympathy for the businesses downtown,” he said. “People are tipping more than usual. There’s general concern and relief. To get things open again, it’s beginning to get better even though it’s early.”

“You can see how it’s brought the community together,” his wife and co-owner Frankee Muller said. “The community has done like this,” she said, meshing the fingers of both hands together.

National Guard called off

By noon Saturday, the Montana National Guard wrapped up its work keeping downtown safe. The “exclusion zone” around the blast site had been reduced to less than a full city block.

The Guard unit went from nine checkpoints, to seven to two before packing up.

Capt. Russ Cunningham, who recently returned from serving in Afghanistan, said the unit was happy to help out.

“It’s not often that we get to help out in our own community,” he said.


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