PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — 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.”