M's Pub blast noted as example of the risks

Simulated excavation site and mock 'gas line' hit inside Lincoln's Lancaster Event Center.


LINCOLN — At a conference focused on digging safety here Wednesday, an investigator with the State Fire Marshal's Office showed an audience a picture of the fire-gutted M's Pub building.

"This could have been prevented" was written beneath the image. The official didn't name the building or discuss the details of the explosion, which the Omaha Fire Department has determined was gas-fueled after a contractor digging in the area in January struck a natural gas line.

The fire marshal's investigation is ongoing.

The M's explosion, which destroyed the restaurant, the Nouvelle Eve boutique and several apartments, underlined the need for safe digging practices.

"Expect safety. Demand safety, and if the company you work for doesn't practice it — leave," Dave Miguel, an underground safety expert told an audience of contractors, excavators and construction workers.

Miguel showed newspaper clippings of construction workers and supervisors throughout the Midwest who had ignored safety procedures and paid for their mistakes with their lives or the lives of their workers.

After seeing the examples, "it makes you more cautious," said Fred Hartman of Sarpy County Public Works, who attended the daylong Excavation Safety Summit, a free event sponsored by Common Ground Nebraska. The group promotes safety, protection of underground utilities and the free 811 "Call before you dig" Nebraska One Call service.

Nearly 600 contractors, excavators, construction equipment dealers, utility regulators, safety experts and investigators attended the event at the Lancaster Event Center in Lincoln.

The summit, which launched six years ago, attracts a larger audience each year, said Jill Geyer, treasurer of Common Ground Nebraska. "The first year there were about 100 registrants," she said.

The summit also walked the audience through an 811 request to locate and mark utilities at a simulated excavation site.

The demonstration included what happens when a contractor ignores the rules and hits a gas line: 811 and 911 must be called and the utility called. The state attorney general can assess a fine of up to $10,000. And the utility may bill the contractor for the damaged gas line, the escaped gas, repairs, labor and other related costs.

In the M's fire, the contractor — North Central Service of Minnesota — didn't report to 811 that it had hit a gas line for more than five hours, according to 811 records. It hasn't responded to requests for comment.

David Geiger, co-owner of Geigers' Construction Inc. in Sidney, Nebraska, named "Contractor of the Year" at the event for the company's safety record, advised excavators to always call 811 Nebraska One Call.

He advised other contractors to treat the area in which "you're digging as if it were next to your own home."

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