Scott Fahey was sitting at his desk at Lano Equipment in Ramsey when he felt the blast ripple across his body.
“I’ve never heard anything like it,” Fahey said.
Looking across U.S. 10, all that was left of Premier Commercial Properties was a sign. The rest of the building, Fahey said, was a geyser of debris that soared 10 stories into the gray sky before raining down on the highway.
Three women died in Tuesday’s explosion, which razed the small commercial building and left a cratered basement in its place.
Victims Lois Gale Self, 49, of Elk River, and Ann Kris Talle, 43, of Anoka, worked for Riverview Community Bank, which was renting an office in the building. The third woman, who had not been identified Tuesday night, worked at Premier, a real estate firm.
A fourth person, Robert Lee Smith, 60, of Coon Rapids, was expected to recover after rescuers, following the sound of Smith’s voice, tore into the burning pile to pull him free. Smith, vice president of Riverview Community Bank, was listed in critical condition at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis with second- and third-degree burns.
Officials say the blast at 9:46 a.m. was almost certainly the result of a gas leak. It blew out nearby windows and dislodged ceiling tiles in an adjacent restaurant. People from nearby businesses ran to the pile of debris to search for survivors by hand. At least 30 people were on the scene before authorities arrived.
Dan Debe, a salesman at Lano Equipment, was looking out his office window across the highway and talking to his wife on the phone when he felt a shudder “like an earthquake,” heard a loud boom and saw “a big cloud of smoke.”
Debe, 33, told his wife he had to go, then ran across the street with the mechanics he works with.
“I was hoping that we would find someone alive, but I didn’t think there was a chance of it,” Debe said.
The wreckage was covered by a rubber lining from the roof, so Debe and others began cutting it away with pocketknives. About half a dozen men were in the crater, calling out for survivors.
“We were yelling, ‘Hello, anybody there?’ ” he said. “Finally, someone responded.”
As Debe and the others worked to free the man, later identified as Smith, they asked him how many other people were in the building with him. He told them two women had been in his office.
“As we were digging, he was saying, ‘Get me out of here,’ ” Debe said. “We asked him if he needed a coat. He said: ‘No, I don’t need a coat. It’s plenty warm. I can feel the heat from the fire.’ “
The men started digging faster, but Smith yelled at them to slow down because pebbles from the roof were falling and hitting him on the head. They found a piece of foam insulation and handed it to him to use as a shield, Debe said.
Firefighters soon arrived and cleared everyone away from the rubble and pulled Smith out of the debris, Debe said.
Lano employees drove excavators and Bobcat loaders over the road to help, as more than 100 firefighters and police officers from more than a dozen agencies arrived. Before long, a cordoned-off stretch of U.S. 10 became a parking lot full of flashing emergency lights, and rescue workers crawled through the crater looking for more survivors.
Terry Sabre, a Lano Equipment mechanic, brought a backhoe over from the business to move rubble and haul equipment for five hours. He worked side by side with his son Ryan Sabre, 25, Lano’s rental manager, who was operating a smaller backhoe.
“It was fairly traumatic,” said Terry Sabre, 48, of Becker. “You’re in a big piece of equipment and you wish you could just get down and dig a hole open to find them.”
The explosion rocked a mobile home park across the highway, where Heather Flann was smoking on her porch when the blast hit.
“I looked up at the sky and saw an orange cloud of smoke,” Flann said. “I had my phone with me and I called 911. Then I ran over to the building and saw that it was totally leveled.”
Ron Conaway, another resident of the park, said the blast woke him up.
“I was asleep when it happened,” Conaway said. “I’m handicapped, a paraplegic. I was on the edge of the bed and when the explosion went off, it knocked me right off the bed.”
Finally, three women were determined to be missing in the debris. But as firefighters, working in below-freezing temperatures, formed a bucket brigade to remove ash and rubble from the basement pit, it became clear that they were working on a recovery operation. With the help of rescue dogs, authorities located two bodies about 12:30 p.m.
It took another hour to excavate them. Standing side by side, dozens of firefighters formed two columns, holding up a canopy of blue and green tarps to ward off the cameras of news helicopters, as the bodies were lifted into an ambulance. A third body was located at 5 p.m. and removed about an hour later.
Two friends of one of the women showed up at the site. Mike Thomas said the victim was a single mother.
“Her best friend went to pull her two kids out of school,” Thomas said, when the woman’s fate was still unclear.
Kurt McCumber said he knew everyone at Premier Commercial, including the owner, whom he said was eating breakfast at the restaurant next door when the blast occurred.
“It was just a free-for-all. A fun place to be,” a somber McCumber said when asked what the office was like.
CenterPoint Energy spokes-man Rolf Lund said the utility had not received any reports of gas odors recently from any building in the nearby area.
Investigators, however, are all but certain that a gas leak led to the explosion, said Charles Kenow, administrator of the Minnesota Office of Pipeline Safety, which investigates natural gas accidents.
“I’d say we’re 99 percent sure that it was attributed to gas,” Kenow said. “With that kind of devastationit’s definitely it would lead us to believe there’s natural gas involved.”
Unknown, however, is where that gas originated or what ignited it. Investigators suspect that gas leaked from a connection where service to the building branches off from lines that serve other buildings nearby, Kenow said. On Tuesday afternoon, investigators were excavating in that area, under a nearby parking lot, to examine the connection.
When gas leaks beneath a hard surface such as a paved parking lot or frozen ground, it tends to travel underground, which could have let gas enter the building, Kenow said.
Riverview Community Bank, based in Otsego, began doing business in March 2003 and has received national notice for blending religion into the workplace. Its vision statement and strategy call for enhancing the well being of its stakeholders by using “Christian principles to expand Christianity.”
Smith, Self and Talle had been working in the bank’s temporary Ramsey office, which the bank had been renting for five or six months, said Duane Kropuenske, Riverview’s president and CEO. In the first week of January, they planned to move into a trailer in Anoka until their new bank under construction there was completed.
The Ramsey location wasn’t a public office; loan production was done there, Kropuenske said.