Gas Leak Noticed, Not Reported, Before Bozeman Explosion

By Beacon Staff

BOZEMAN – A gas leak responsible for leveling a quarter block of downtown Bozeman and killing a woman was detected in advance by several people, though no one called authorities, investigators said Friday.

Investigators said a leak in a NorthWestern Energy gas line was behind the March 5 explosion and it was noticed by people in the area.

“On the morning of the explosion, through the investigation we did determine that people did smell gas in the area of East Main, but nobody called (Northwestern Energy). Nobody called 911,” said Detective Mark Lachapelle of the Bozeman Police Department.

The Billings Gazette reported the early detection of the gas leak on its Web site Friday.

A separation in a natural gas line behind the Montana Trails Gallery caused the explosion, officials said.

Bozeman Fire Chief Jason Shrauger said the leak occurred in an underground service line between the main gas line and the meter for Montana Trails Gallery.

“The leak allowed natural gas to migrate through the soil under the hard surfaces of the alley and enter buildings at an undetermined location. The cause of the failure of the service line has not yet been determined,” Shrauger said.

The fire chief said there were several potential ignition sources in the buildings.

The investigation was conducted by the Bozeman Fire Department and the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. It was complete Thursday but city officials declined to release the report before getting permission from a District Court judge.

In the order requesting release of the statement, Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert said no criminal activity was suspected with regard to the explosion and fire.

NorthWestern Energy said the company has not has a chance to fully review the report, but the company has been working with investigators to determine the cause of the March 5 blast.

The explosion crumbled four buildings, destroying Boodles restaurant, Montana Trails Gallery, LillyLu’s children’s store, Tolstedt Architects and the American Legion Hall. Several other businesses were suffered significant damage, including the Rocking R Bar, the Pickle Barrel restaurant inside the Rocking R, the Rocky Mountain Rug Gallery and Starky’s Authentic Delicatessen.

Tara Reistad Bowman, 36, died in the explosion.

“Our deepest sympathy goes out to the family and friends of Tara Bowman,” NorthWestern President and CEO Bob Rowe said in a statement. “Her loss will be felt throughout the Bozeman community. Our corporate family also wants others who were affected by the explosion to know you are in our thoughts and prayers.

“We will continue to work side-by-side with the affected businesses and the city of Bozeman to restore the downtown area to good economic health as soon as possible,” Rowe said.

The service line has not been fully excavated and will be sent to a lab for further testing to determine what caused the break, officials said.

NorthWestern investigators have not examined the gas lines and appliances inside the businesses involved because the fire was still being investigated. The utility plans to finish its investigation after getting permission from property owners.

Earlier, NorthWestern spokeswoman Claudia Rapkoch said the utility did not receive any reports of natural gas odors in the 48 hours preceding the explosion.

Rowe echoed that on Friday.

“We checked our records going back for several days. … There were no calls to 911,” Rowe said.

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