Gas explosion levels 2 homes

Evacuees head for safety across the lawn of a house at 1742 N. Seventh Street after the home beside it exploded following a strong odor of natural gas in the area Wednesday. The fire eventually spread to the grey house, destroying it completely.

An explosion caused by a natural gas leak rocked a Grand Junction neighborhood Tuesday afternoon, sparking a raging fire that claimed two homes and sent three people to the hospital with burn injuries.

A massive evacuation of hundreds of people in homes, businesses and schools in an area bordered by Grand Junction High School on the west, Tope Elementary School on the north, Colorado Mesa University on the east and North Avenue on the south was partially lifted Tuesday evening. Residents of roughly 75 homes on both sides of Seventh Street from Elm Avenue to Walnut Avenue and between Sixth and Eighth streets from Orchard Avenue to Walnut were escorted back into their homes to retrieve necessary items before being forced to make other arrangements Tuesday night.

The Salvation Army fed evacuees Tuesday night, while American Red Cross Western Colorado Chapter director Eric Myers said they’d made arrangements to provide shelter for 15 people.

Police Chief John Camper said residents in evacuated areas overnight are asked to meet around 8 a.m. today at Seventh Day Adventist Church, 730 Mesa Ave., where representatives of Xcel Energy will escort them back into their homes, checking for gas and, if need be, re-light pilot lights.

The explosion that touched off a chaotic day happened at 1752 N. Seventh St. around 12:45 p.m.

Fire officials said three people were in the home at that address when the explosion happened. Minutes before, a city contractor working on a project just a few houses to the north at the intersection of Seventh Street and Orchard Avenue reported a significant gas leak. Xcel crews said the gas leak originated with a transmission line that sits roughly seven feet underground at the intersection and feeds Colorado Mesa University.

Massive black clouds could be seen for miles, and flames could be seen from as far away as North Avenue after the explosion.

Jason Brenton, a CMU track coach, was walking to Grand Junction High through an alley that runs right by the house when it exploded.

“There were two kids that legitimately got blown out of the house,” Brenton said, describing a third person as appearing “fine.”

He rushed to help the two college-aged students with burn injuries. One had burns on his arm and hand, and the other had burns on his face and side, Brenton said.

Officials said three people were taken to St. Mary’s Hospital with burn injuries, though they said all three were up and walking around before being taken to the hospital. Brenton said the three did not appear too seriously injured. Two were admitted for observation overnight, while the third was treated and released, authorities said.

The explosion sparked a fire at the house next door at 1742 N. Seventh St. Smoke poured from the back of the home, and firefighters carried hoses through the front door of the home at about 1:20 p.m., but the fire soon consumed that home as well.

As the second home burned, an anxious John Graham, 20, arrived on the scene hoping to find out about the three people injured in the explosion. Graham, a former CMU student, said two of the people who live in the house at 1752 N. Seventh are CMU students, and the third works in the area.

Graham said he believed the three have lived in the home for the last two years, and that five more CMU students live in the house next door that also was consumed in the fire.

The identities of the three injured people couldn’t immediately be confirmed. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ chapter at CMU identified the five people who lived at 1742 N. Seventh as Aaron Eggiman, Austin Kaiser, Dakota Klossner, Corey Wright and Alex Zwink.

Tim Hofer, a 19-year-old CMU student, shares a house with four other students nearby at 725 Orchard Ave. Hofer said he returned home between 12:15 and 12:30 p.m. but quickly left after getting light-headed and smelling a strong odor of gas. His roommates had previously left the house suffering similar symptoms.

A few minutes after arriving at a friend’s house away from the gas leak, Hofer said he heard the massive boom that led to the multiple fires.

More than two hours after the explosion, flames were still licking the second home, sending billowy black smoke into the air. Both homes that ignited because of the explosion were a total loss, and a third property just north of the exploded home suffered partial damage as well, fire officials said.

Authorities extended the boundaries of the evacuation around 3 p.m. to between Sixth and Ninth streets and Bookcliff and North avenues before shrinking it in the evening.

“I think that’s probably farther than we needed to (evacuate), but we wanted to be on the safe side,” Camper said.

Police went door to door to houses in the area, recommending that people leave because of lingering concerns about leaks in the natural gas system.

Xcel workers scrambled throughout the evacuation area for most of the afternoon to stop the initial gas leak and to try to free gas trapped in the sewer system by removing manhole covers.

Gas service was interrupted for most of the afternoon throughout the evacuation area, including the nearby CMU campus.

Officials said 104 buildings on the campus were without power for an extended period of time as well. Some buildings were still without hot water and heat Tuesday evening.

The cause of the initial explosion was still under investigation late Tuesday, Camper told a press conference.

Grand Junction Public Works Director Greg Trainor said a contractor, Grand Junction-based Apeiron Utility Construction, was boring into the ground Tuesday at Seventh and Orchard to place conduit for a traffic-signal upgrade when crews hit a high-pressure gas main.

Trainor said Apeiron performs work for the city “often,” but didn’t know how long they had been working at Seventh and Orchard prior to Tuesday’s explosion.

It’s standard practice to complete a “locate”—a check for buried utilities—prior to digging around, he said.

“I would be extremely surprised if a locate hadn’t been done,” Trainor said. “I’m assuming they did, but I can’t tell you that for sure.”

While the incident won’t be looked at from a criminal law standpoint, the city, its insurer and Xcel Energy will be investigating, Camper said.

“I’m sure a number of people will be looking at this with a fine-toothed comb,” he said.

Grand Junction High School is expected to be open today, while classes at Tope Elementary have been cancelled for the day, Camper said.

Staff writers Paul Shockley and Mike Wiggins contributed to this report.


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