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April 25, 2014 at 5:41 AM

Explosion, fire destroy buildings in North Bend

(Video courtesy of Richard Stewart)

A suspected natural gas explosion and fire destroyed or damaged several businesses in North Bend early this morning, but officials report only two minor injuries.

The manager of a gas station on the west end of the explosion had arrived about 3:30 a.m. to open the business and he heard fire alarms going off, indicating the fire had started before the explosion, said Josie Williams, spokeswoman for Eastside Fire and Rescue.

The blast destroyed three structures and damaged several others, with debris blown more than a block away. Williams said the destroyed buildings included a pizza place that was being renovated, a barbershop and an office building in a strip mall.

In addition, the gas station at one end of the explosion and the tire store at the other end also were significantly damaged. About a block away, the blast shattered windows at an assisted-living facility and two residents suffered minor injuries.

A North Bend barber shop was demolished in en explosion early this morning. (John Lok / The Seattle Times)

A North Bend barbershop was demolished in en explosion early this morning. (John Lok / The Seattle Times)

The explosion damaged garage bay doors at the Les Schwab Tires store. (John Lok / The Seattle Times)

The explosion damaged garage bay doors at the Les Schwab Tires store. (John Lok / The Seattle Times)

At the Red Oak Residence, a senior home just east of the blast, windows were shattered in many of the 47 units and power remained out five hours after the explosion.

“We were very fortunate, considering,” said administrative assistant Chuck Beatty, who said just two residents had minor injuries.  One was taken to a local hospital to get stitches for a cut wrist. The other resident had a cut thumb and needed just a bandage.

“This is going to be a huge cleanup,” Beatty said. “A lot of stuff was knocked to the floor: mirrors, furniture, artwork.  And they’re mixed in with broken glass, so we have to be very careful.”

He said he wasn’t sure whether residents in all the units would be able to stay at the facility during the cleanup.

The blast and fire have closed a two-block section of North Bend Way, the east-west route through town. “We were very fortunate,” Williams said. “If this had happened a couple of hours later there would definitely be more injuries and possibly loss of life.”

The fire drew between 75 and 80 firefighters from several districts, Williams said.

Andy Wappler, a spokesman for Puget Sound Energy, briefing reporters at the scene, referred to the blast as a “natural gas explosion,” but then clarified his remark saying it was a “suspected” natural gas explosion.  Wappler said the explosion knocked out electrical service to 1,500 homes and businesses, but in an hour, service was restored to all but 200 customers.

Summoned by firefighters, utility crews immediately cut off the gas line that served the area that was burning, Wappler said. The utility helped to “stabilize the scene” for the safety of fire crews and nearby residents, he said.

Tony Marchetti and Kristin Sherron were asleep in their two-level apartment unit directly across the street from the blast. “We heard one big explosion and a second smaller one,” Sherron said.

Marchetti said, “The explosion woke me up and the whole building shook for a few seconds. I thought it was an earthquake at first.” The couple looked outside and saw the barbershop completely engulfed in flames.

The blast damaged the exterior of their apartment, knocking loose panels outside their living room and a bathroom. Sherron said a sliding glass door shattered, was bent off its frame and many items in the kitchen had been knocked to the floor by the force of the blast.

“It felt like a wave came in and went out, and I thought, ‘What the hell is this?’ It blew out my kitchen window and knocked pictures off my walls,”  said  Don Baunsgard, who lives in the same apartment building.

Debris was scattered everywhere near the scene of an explosion in North Bend. (John Lok / The Seattle Times)

Debris was scattered near the scene of an explosion in North Bend. (John Lok / The Seattle Times)

Broken windows and shattered and dislodged sliding glass doors could be seen in dozens of units at the Mount Si Apartment Homes.

“It was the most bizarre thing in the world,” Baunsgard said, noting that his kitchen window blew toward the explosion, not away from it.

A similar experience was recounted by Brian Johnson, who rents a house about a half-block away. “It was loud, real loud. I thought something hit my house. It was just a big blast,” he said.

Five windows in his home were shattered, but they were pushed out of the house, instead of pushed in.

Craig Muller, with King County Sheriff’s Fire and Arson Investigation Unit, said investigators are on the scene to determine what happened, which he described as “putting together a jigsaw puzzle that’s partially burned.”

Asked about reports of nearby apartment windows blowing toward the explosion rather than away from it, Muller said it was possible. Explosions can have a wave of force that first goes outward and then inward, but he did not want to speculate on the specifics of this explosion.

Residents said the pizza place was due to reopen soon after being closed for several years. Behind the charred hulk of the restaurant, plywood sheets could be seen stuck in the limbs of evergreen trees at least 20 feet off the ground.

Robert Wheeler of Mercer Island, who has owned the strip mall since the 1980s, said that in addition to the barbershop and restaurant, the demolished businesses include a hair salon, an accounting office and a dance studio. By mid-morning, a couple of comments from well-wishers were posted on the Facebook page of the Last Cut East Barber Shop, destroyed in the explosion.

At 10 a.m. Williams said the road by the blast scene would likely be closed for a few more hours. She said investigators are checking not just the blast site, but the entire area over which debris was blown, as much as a block away. A nearby park is closed for the day because of the amount of debris blown there.

Dave McDaniel, battalion chief with Eastside Fire and Rescue, said fire crews were unable to get to the burning structure immediately because of “the potential for a secondary explosion.” He said once utility workers tie off a gas line, fire crews would be able to approach the structure. By late morning, they still had not been inside.

McDaniel said that he had been told that people had been working in the pizza parlor Thursday, possibly late into the night. But “as best as we can put together, we don’t believe anyone was in the building” at the time of the explosion, he said.

 For more photos, visit the gallery.

Comments | More in The Blotter | Topics: Eastside Fire, North Bend

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