BOZEMAN – City officials say a woman remains unaccounted for after a natural gas explosion rocked downtown Bozeman Thursday morning, collapsing three buildings.
Assistant City Manager and former fire chief Chuck Winn said Thursday night that although the fire was under control, conditions were too hazardous to begin searching for the woman, whose name was not released. No injuries have been reported.
“We have exhausted all resources to ascertain that she’s not in there,” the Bozeman Daily Chronicle quoted Winn as saying.
Ten of the 11 people who were initially unaccounted for were located soon after the explosion and fire that destroyed Boodles restaurant, the Rocking R Bar, Montana Trails Gallery, the American Legion building and Lily Lu’s children’s store. The blast also significantly damaged several nearby businesses.
The explosion happened at about 8:15 a.m. in the 200 block of Main Street, and city manager Chris Kukulski has declared a local emergency.
Crews allowed the fire to burn into Thursday night because NorthWestern Energy was unable to completely shut off the natural gas.
“There is still some blowing gas at the explosion site, but it is well contained,” said NorthWestern spokeswoman Claudia Rapkoch, who anticipated the gas being shut off by midnight Thursday. “It’s being allowed to burn on purpose because that’s dissipating the natural gas.”
Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who attended an afternoon news conference in Bozeman, thanked those who responded to the scene.
“The state of Montana stands ready to assist the community in any way we can,” he said, adding that he and his wife “send our thoughts and prayers to everyone affected by the disaster.”
Witnesses reported seeing debris fly three times the height of the two-story building. Glass windows on downtown storefronts two blocks away were shattered by the blast, and a pile of wood, glass and wreckage about 8 feet high spilled onto the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, according to the Chronicle.
Jalal Neishabouri, who runs the Rocky Mountain Rug Gallery, said he was getting a cup of coffee in his store when the blast knocked him backward.
“My whole life,” he told the newspaper through tears. “I’m so glad I wasn’t in my office because I would have been dead. I’m really lucky I went for a cup of coffee.”
The explosion shook ceiling tiles at Schnee’s Boots and Shoes three blocks from the site and knocked down shoes that were on display, but no one was hurt, said Dawn McClelland, who had just reported for work.
“The whole building shook,” she said. “I thought somebody had rammed (a car) into the back of the building. The people up front thought the ceiling was falling in.”
Two hours later, McClelland was preparing to leave as a haze hung over downtown. The store was closed for the day.
Students at the Hawthorne School in Bozeman were moved to the Bozeman Public Library due to possible air quality concerns, Superintendent Kirk Miller said early Thursday afternoon.
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