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North Bend's huge explosion ruled accidental, clean-up can begin

King County deputies go over the smoking ruins of the Pizza Place and neighboring businesses following the April 25 explosion in downtown North Bend. - Seth Truscott/Staff Photo
King County deputies go over the smoking ruins of the Pizza Place and neighboring businesses following the April 25 explosion in downtown North Bend.
— image credit: Seth Truscott/Staff Photo

Natural gas was a factor in an April 25 explosion that destroyed three buildings on North Bend Way, but it was an accident, according to a report coming from the King County Fire Investigation Unit.

“We are comfortable it was an accidental event,” said Craig Muller, who completed his report last week. A release of natural gas in the Pizza Place building, undergoing renovation for a new business that was reportedly days away from opening, contributed to the blast. “It appeared that a couple of valves had been inadvertently left open,” Muller said.

Now that the investigation is complete, that debris field can be cleaned up. North Bend City officials have been eager for this moment, because until the investigators formally conclude their work in the city, the blast area had to remain untouched, an eyesore fenced off in the middle of the city. Fire investigators and about a dozen insurance investigators have been examining the debris to determine not only the cause, but also if liability can be assigned to any of the affected businesses or property owners.

A ruling of accidental explosion doesn’t necessarily mean the issue is resolved, however, said North Bend City Administrator Londi Lindell.

“I fully anticipate that it will be ruled an accidental explosion,” she told the Record before the report was published, adding that King County Fire Investigation workers “were looking at it from a criminal standpoint… It can be accidental and someone can still be negligent or irresponsible,” and those issues remain to be settled by the  insurance companies.

Cleaning up the affected area will require city demolition permits, and authorization from the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, which checks buildings for asbestos before they can be demolished, Lindell said. Part of that permitting process is an analysis for hazardous materials in the debris, and taking precautions to keep the debris out of the city’s storm drains.

The city permits will be in place when the work starts, Lindell said, and she expected the Clean Air Agency to give its OK as early as this week.

“I think everybody has the same mutual goal, which is ‘Let’s get this site remediated as soon as possible,’” she said.

Several factors led to the investigation taking such a long time, almost a month longer than Muller had originally anticipated.

“Part of it was it was the large loss,” Muller said. Damages were likely to run into the millions because of the number of properties affected, 55, and the number of parties working to represent their cases. Another part was “tracking down the information… I talked to this person and from that, I found out I should also talk to this person….”

Each of the parties that could face some liability from the incident also conducted their own investigations, simultaneously, so it was a large job, and only one of the 300 to 350 cases Muller’s office handles each year.

Besides wrecking the Pizza Place, the explosion nearly flattened buildings housing the Point Dance Center, a beauty salon shared by Michelle Dunbar (owner of Kutters) and Shelley Gildersleeve, and the Last Cut East barber shop.

The next closest buildings to the blast, the 76 station and Les Schwab Tires, had their roofs punctured and windows blown out and, at Les Schwab, garage doors were twisted and smashed from the force. Shattered windows were also reported at the Red Oak Assisted Living facility, where 24 of the 47 residents had to be relocated while glass shards were cleaned up and furniture was replaced, and at the 48-unit Mount Si Court apartments, doors and windows were smashed and five apartments were “red-tagged” as unlivable until repairs could be made. Behind the blast in Torguson Park, a city building’s roof was briefly lifted off its foundation, and debris filled the area, making the city decide to close the park temporarily.

In all, 55 properties were damaged in the blast, and no one was seriously injured.

 

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