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'They've never seen anything this huge': Massive mess, few injuries when North Bend pizza place explodes

Clean-up efforts get under way Friday afternoon, April 25, at the epicenter of the North Bend pizza restaurant explosion. - William Shaw/Staff Photo
Clean-up efforts get under way Friday afternoon, April 25, at the epicenter of the North Bend pizza restaurant explosion.
— image credit: William Shaw/Staff Photo

First they felt it. Then they heard it. Many thought it was an earthquake.

The blast that woke North Bend in the predawn darkness on Friday, April 25, was centered on the former Pizza Place restaurant at 540 East North Bend Way, shuttered for years but recently under remodel construction.

Nothing of the restaurant was left after a huge explosion tore the building to bits, hurling beams and pipes dozens of feet in all directions, and coating much of North Bend, for a quarter of a mile or more in all directions, with bits of insulation and debris. Concussive forces from the blast twisted and shifted nearby buildings and shattered windows.

Yet injuries were minor. One person was reported hurt—a resident of Red Oak suffered a hand laceration from flying glass.

Emergency responders say timing was critical to the lack of injuries—practically no one was on the street at the time of the explosion.

“If this were later in the morning, this could have been a very different situation,” said Josie Williams, spokeswoman for Eastside Fire and Rescue.

“Look at the nails popping out of everything!” she said. “We’re really fortunate that there weren’t any people out and about.”

Puppy sucked out the window

Snoqualmie-North Bend Police Chief Steve McCulley is grateful for both small and large favors, following the early morning explosion. Although the blast shook him out of bed, literally, and covered the city with a pile of debris from beyond the roundabout “all the way to the Pour House,” five blocks to the northwest, it could have been a lot worse.

“The original report I heard was that the 76 station had blown up,” McCulley said.

It hadn’t, but the neighboring building had, with an earthquake-like rumble, followed by the bright light of the fire, and then by a power outage affecting 1,500 homes. McCulley, who lived nearby, arrived at the gas station before the power had gone out, and helped the shaken store clerk on duty to shut off the gas pumps.

The clerk had been alone in the store when she saw the explosion, McCulley said. She then ran out of the station and across the street, and called 911. She was uninjured, and despite the shattered windows and flying debris throughout the city, no major injuries have been reported.

“We’re lucky this happened at 4 a.m.,” said McCulley.

With the exception of the buildings closest to the blast, most buildings are not badly damaged, either.

“Most of what we’ve seen is (broken) windows and stress fractures,” said City Administrator Londi Lindell,

She agreed that the city was lucky, especially the residents of the Mount Si Court apartments.

“The blast blew the windows out,” she said, not inward. The force of the explosion may have travelled in through the chimneys of the building, and then out through the windows, leaving the sleeping residents unharmed by flying glass.

Lindell said city officials had heard from one man, who’d been sleeping with a puppy in his arms, and only awoke when he was thrown from his bed, in time to see his puppy sucked out the broken window. He quickly recovered the animal, which was fine, she said.

Rude awakening

“It almost knocked me out of bed,” said Gabby Barragan, a ground floor resident of Mount Si Court, where she’s lived for two years.  “It was just a huge bang. We didn’t know what was going on.”

Barragan and dozens of other residents of Mount Si Court apartments, directly across North Bend Way from ground zero, were rudely awakened to find that their windows, and patio doors, were shattered and ripped off their hinges by concussive force.

“We got the dogs, everyone got dressed, and we ran outside,” Barragan said. “The alarms were going off. Nobody wanted to stay inside.”

“It’s weird how it affected everything,” said resident Brian Noyes, noting how some windows didn’t break.

“We got it the worst,” figured Tony Marchetti, who, with Kristin Sherron, lives on the second floor of Mount Si Court, on the face closest to the exploded building.

“It’s a mess,” said Sherron. “Everything out of the cupboards is on the floor. There’s gaps between the ceiling and the walls.” A structural engineer, they were told, must now assess the damage. With the windows covered by sheets, they prepared to leave for now.

“Luckily my parents live in town,” Sherron said. “We can crash there.”

Salon burns

Fire followed the explosion. The neighboring Last Cut East hair salon was fully engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived.

“There was nothing left,” Williams said. “They were just trying to protect the exposures.”

Eighty firefighters from 18 different departments arrived to help fight the blaze and deal with the aftermath. Firefighters searched twice, but couldn’t find anyone in the destroyed buildings.

Meanwhile, Puget Sound Energy capped the natural gas line and turned off the power to the neighborhood.

Next to what was left of the Pizza Place, the Point Dance Center building was shattered. The far wall was standing, but with a pronounced lean.

One building down from the rubble, five employees of the North Bend Les Schwab stood in the parking lot as inspectors arrived to take stock of the interior. The bay doors facing the explosion had been wrenched and twisted, plate glass windows shattered. To get inside, one staffer had to yank hard for a few moments to get the front door to open—the door frame marked “pull” had bent, and it no longer “pulled.”

“They’re lucky nobody was working in there,” Williams said.

The destruction drew many sightseers to North Bend Way. Kept back by police tape, they gingerly made their way along the sidewalk, which was itself dangerous, crusted with broken glass. Wood beams with long nails lay where they had fallen, dozens of yards from ground zero.

“Be careful, it’s all over,” a passersby said as she walked along the pavement. “Those are from that building.”

The scope of the damage was bigger than anything EF&R has faced, to date.

“I was talking to a lot of our firefighters,” said Williams. “They’ve never seen anything this huge.”

Recovery begins at ground zero

After the salon fire was put out, the King County Fire Investigation unit arrived to survey and measure the scene. Clean-up began around noon, and North Bend Way was partially opened to traffic by 2 p.m.

Torguson Park was closed due to dangerous conditions, but school at neighboring North Bend Elementary started on time, even though, with the city’s sole east-west arterial cut, busses had to navigate Interstate 90.

Opening North Bend Way to traffic was the city’s number-one priority, after public safety, said  Lindell.

“We have determined that there are no buildings that are so structurally unsafe that they have to evacuate,” she told the Record. A building official made the rounds, starting with Red Oak, then moving to the QFC, Mount Si Court, and surrounding businesses.

Responsibility for clean-up rests with the city, said Lindell.

“Once they clear us to start cleaning, we’ll start,” she said.

“We weren’t allowed to clean,” Lindell said—investigators needed to do aerial surveys to understand the blast. Until the survey is completed, they want the debris field left alone.

“They shouldn’t be picking them up right now,” Lindell said Friday morning.

Power restored, clean-up begins

Most of the 1,500 people who lost electrical power after the explosion had it restored by 9 a.m., and by an early-afternoon press conference with PSE spokesperson Andy Wappler, fewer than 100 people were still without power. “We just got clearance to bring our crews in, so we hope to get the rest up by tonight,” Wappler added.

The nearby Red Oak assisted living home had many broken windows from the blast, but no serious injuries among the 47 residents, and only two minor ones. Wappler said PSE prioritized restoring power to the now-drafty facility, and were able to do it by using insulators that stopped electricity from transmitting up the line past Red Oak. Power was restored to the facility shortly after noon, roughly the same time the North Bend Way roundabout was re-opened and traffic was allowed down North Bend way as far as Orchard.

PSE was onsite since shortly after the blast, to cut off the gas flow. Once the bulk of the fire was out, they also checked the area for residual gas concentrations but found none, clearing it so the investigation could begin. Since then, Wappler said, PSE staff had largely been focused on helping investigators with information about gas lines in the area, and the use history of the affected properties.

“We don’t have an official sense right now as to the cause,” he said, adding that PSE hadn’t done any recent work in the area, and hadn’t been called to shut off gas service to any properties. All three properties had meters, and were fed by a low-pressure main, either 6 or 8 inches in diameter, Wappler said.

The King County Sheriff’s Office Fire and Arson Investigation Unit is the lead in the investigation, and inspector Craig Mullen, on scene since about 5 a.m., didn’t offer any working theory about the cause. “We don’t form a conclusion unit the end of our investigation,” he said. Also, “We don’t close the case until all our forensics are in.”

Mullen couldn’t estimate how long his investigation might take, since every incident is different. His crew will be moving things around and sifting through the debris for as long as they need to, he said. “We’re here till we’re done.”

Awaiting word for what’s next, Barragan and other Mount Si Court residents began preparations to board up their damaged doors.

“It’ll be interesting for the next few days,” said Noyes.

Barragan looked on the bright side: “It could be raining.”

“It could have been 100 times worse,” said Mount Si Court resident Sarah Fowler, who was preparing to board up her destroyed front windows.

“We’ve had a lot of people ask if we’re OK, do we need anything. I think everyone is coming tother. I’m sure there are going to be a lot of people helping out.”

“Luckily, no one’s really hurt. It’s just stuff. We can replace it,” said Fowler.

What to do now?

Lindell encouraged anyone worried about potential damage to their home to call City Hall, (425-888-1211) and request a building inspection. Both the North Bend and Snoqualmie building inspectors are examining buildings now. She added that if residents see damage that is concerning, they should leave the building, get to a safe distance, and call 911.

• Valley Record Reporter Carol Ladwig contributed to this story.

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