Hundreds cleared out in fear of more blasts

Smoke rises from 7th Street as GJ students are herded to Sherwood Park.

The natural gas-triggered explosion that destroyed two homes also sent hundreds of evacuated students scurrying onto buses and flooding the streets of Grand Junction — and their worried parents scrambling to find them.

Worried that the breached gas line could spark more fires, authorities cleared out dozens of homes and neighborhoods on either side of North Seventh Street, as well as Grand Junction High School and Tope Elementary School.

Greg and Amy Gnesios, who live at 2025 N. Ninth St., walked to Fourth and Glenwood, looking for their daughter, Lindsey, who was among a sea of Grand Junction High students streaming west from the school.

The students rallied at the Salvation Army chapel, which was quickly packed wall-to-wall. They were eventually sent to nearby Sherwood Park.

Greg said he was in his backyard around 12:45 p.m. when he heard a “sonic boom.” His home telephone then rang with the first of two automated messages from Mesa County emergency dispatchers.

“This first message said to shelter-in-place, close all windows and doors and said there was a gas problem,” Greg said.

Roughly 20 minutes later, a second call told them to get out.

He wondered if he’d have a home to go back to.

“All the homes in my neighborhood are from the 1940s, all wood-frame construction,” Greg said.

His wife had just returned home after walking Lindsey to school, before the explosion.

On her way home, Amy said she passed the parking lot of the Western Colorado Center for the Arts, 1803 N. Seventh St., around 12:30 p.m., where she was greeted with an overwhelming odor of gas.

“You could see vapors in the air ... about as high up as a person,” Amy Gnesios said. “I saw this one guy up on Orchard with a cigarette in his mouth. I’m like, ‘Dude, that’s not a good idea.’”

She said a worker, who was among a group trenching in the ground in the area of Seventh Street and Orchard Avenue, told her they’d hit a gas line.

The couple said crews have been at working on traffic signals at the intersection “for the last week.”

Other parents of District 51 schoolchildren, like James Williams of 2984 Mesa Ave., made frantic drives to West Middle School, 123 W. Orchard Ave., where approximately 350 students at Tope Elementary School, 2220 N. Seventh St., were bused following an evacuation order.

Williams said he could smell gas “strong” around 11:50 a.m., when he dropped off his 5-year-old daughter, Shelby, at Tope Elementary.

“I drove from the school clear down to North and 12th and could still smell it in my truck,” Williams said.

Andy Laase, executive director of elementary school operations for District 51, said four school buses were dispatched after law enforcement ordered Tope’s evacuation. Students walked roughly one block to a staging area at St. Mary’s Hospital’s Pavilion, Laase said.

The students were loaded on buses and driven to West Middle School, which is Tope’s pre-planned evacuation site, he said.

At West, Tope students waited with teachers in the gymnasium for their parents to show up. They weren’t released unless an adult produced identification.

Eight-year-old Shane Williams said he was in math class at Tope when the principal announced on a public-address system they were evacuating.

Several Tope children said something smelled foul inside the school before they had to leave.

“It was really stinky,” Shane Williams said. “I was scared.”

Grand Junction High students and faculty responded to the gas leak in stages, first going to shelter-in-place, then gathering at the school library, then evacuating to the Salvation Army and then to Sherwood Park.

“I think that it went pretty well,” said Grand Junction police officer Kevin Bavor. “You can’t plan for something like this entirely and they really kept it together.”

Sophomore Stephanie Woodard, 15, said she was outside the school and heard a loud pop when the house at 1752 N. Seventh St. exploded, “and then I could see the smoke rising,” she said.

Students were told over the intercom to go to the nearest classroom, said freshman Tristin Mcelvain, 15, and then to the school library. From the library, students evacuated to the Salvation Army store at 1235 N. 4th Street “but that wasn’t big enough for all the students so we moved over here to Sherwood Park,” Bavor said.

“And it kind of stinks because all my homework’s in my locker and I have two presentations Thursday,” Woodard said.

Students with cars in the school parking lot initially were sent one at a time to retrieve their cars, then in a group. Dozens of parents came to the park to get their children, signing them out with a member of the faculty, and other students waited for the regular school buses to come to the park and take them home.

While they waited, some lounged on the grass in tree shade, some played hacky sack, some just wandered around and wondered what was going on as they gazed toward the dark plume of smoke rising east of the park. The Fruita Monument High School baseball team, which had come to Grand Junction High School for a game, practiced on the far side of the park.


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