MT – By Scott McMillion, Bozeman Daily Chronicle Staff Writer

LIVINGSTON — A natural gas explosion rocked an eastside neighborhood here Thursday morning, destroying two houses and a garage and sending four people to the hospital.

Luckily, a city firefighter lives across the alley and was able to radio for immediate help and assist the wounded.

One of the homes, at 110 South L Street, is a triplex that belongs to Ken Spalding, a former Park County commissioner, who lived there with his daughter and two grown grandchildren.

Spalding’s 21-year-old grandson was burned.

“He came out of the house through a hole in the wall,” Spalding said as he stood among neighbors, watching firefighters mop up the blaze about noon Thursday.

The grandson was hospitalized at Livingston Memorial Hospital.

Two NorthWest Energy employees who were working on a gas leak near the house also were injured, according to Livingston Fire and Rescue Chief Ken Mastin, as well as a third unidentified man.

None of the injuries are life threatening, Mastin said.

Moments before the explosion, Livingston firefighter Mike Chambers, who lives across the alley, was leaning over his fence, talking to two Northwest Energy employees who were working in a hole in the alley, trying to find a gas leak, Chambers said.

Chambers then went in his garage to work on a project.

“The next thing I know, kaboom!” Chambers said. “All my tools and everything ended up on the floor of the garage. I knew immediately what had happened, because I’d just been talking to them.”

The two Northwest Energy men in the hole were injured. Chambers performed triage on them and called for ambulances and firetrucks on his portable radio while a full-blown structure fire was raging just a few feet away.

Chambers “was kind of the hero of the day,” Mastin said.

Spalding’s grandson lived in the back unit of the triplex, and was home when the house blew up at 10:10 a.m.

The home immediately broke into a hot fire, witnesses said.

Another city employee who lives nearby, animal control officer Brad Haefs, checked the burning houses to make sure nobody was trapped inside, and assisted with the wounded, Chambers said.

Most of Spalding’s home was reduced to ashes and debris. Parts of it were blown hundreds of feet in the explosion, which also cracked plaster and dislodged objects from the walls in houses at least a half block away.

The house next door also was destroyed, although still standing, and a pet ferret there was killed, Mastin said. No people were home at the time.

Chambers described another man as “walking wounded,” but didn’t know if the man worked for NorthWest Energy or the company that has been doing sewer line construction in the alley this week.

Spalding, who lives in the middle unit of the triplex, was unhurt. His daughter and granddaughter live in the front unit and weren’t at home at the time.

Mastin said construction workers reported a smell of gas about 8 a.m. Thursday. Gas can gather in porous soils, he said, or follow pipelines and accumulate in odd places.

Acting City Manager Darren Raney said a backhoe apparently damaged the natural gas line, which led to the explosion inside the house, but an investigation is ongoing.

The explosion was a big enough to be heard and felt at the city shops about a mile away.

“I was laying on the couch talking to my daughter on the phone,” said Sylvia Barnhart, who lives two houses away from Spalding’s. “It blowed me off the couch.”

A number of homes in the area suffered what Mastin called “collateral damage.”

Dave Hiller, who lives about 300 feet away on K Street, said the explosion cracked some plaster walls in his home and knocked objects off the walls.

He said his neighbors reported similar damage.

“All kinds of stuff was knocked off the walls,” he said. “I’m sure we all had it.”

Firefighters and ambulance crews were just a few blocks away and were able to respond almost immediately.

When they got there, Chambers suited up and joined his colleagues.

However, because the fire was driven by natural gas, crews couldn’t begin trying to put it out until the gas was turned off, Mastin said, so at first they concentrated on protecting neighboring residences.

It took about 15 minutes to get the gas turned off, Mastin said.

Chambers said the gas company men were lucky they were in the hole at the time of the blast.

“A lot of the explosion went over the top of them,” Chambers said.More than a dozen fire trucks and scores of firefighters helped fight the fire and save the neighborhood.