As Omaha faced a burned-out hulk of a historical building in the soul of its Old Market, questions emerged Sunday about a work crew digging in the area before an explosion and blaze destroyed longtime businesses and left more than a dozen people without homes.
People in the area reported smelling a strong odor of natural gas before the explosion Saturday at 11th and Howard Streets that tore through the building housing M's Pub.
But no one called 911 or the Fire Department to report a suspicious odor, Fire Chief Bernie Kanger told The World-Herald late Sunday. Kanger said he had the tapes reviewed at the emergency dispatch center as far back as noon on the day of the fire to check for a gas-related call. Fire crews raced to the building at 2:51 p.m. on Saturday.
"Crews were dispatched to a building fire — an explosion — not a natural gas leak," he said.
That leaves the question that if the fire was indeed caused by natural gas — and the cause hasn't been determined; it's still under investigation — why didn't someone call to report a smell of natural gas if there was time to do so?
The Metropolitan Utilities District says it didn't receive any calls about a gas odor, either.
An executive at a company that had hired a contractor to do work at the site on 11th and Howard Streets said he was working with city officials to answer questions, too: "If a gas line was hit, why was it hit?" he said. "Was it not marked correctly? Was the contractor off-course on digging?"
Unite Private Networks President Jason Adkins told The World-Herald on Sunday that a contractor hired by his Kansas City, Missouri fiber-optics firm was working in the area at the time of the explosion.
Adkins said Unite workers weren't on the scene when the building blew; he said his contractor, North Central Service of Bemidji, Minnesota, was performing the work.
North Central Chief Executive Troy Torgerson didn't respond to multiple efforts to reach him.
North Central equipment and a pickup truck were parked in front of M's Pub before the explosion and a piece of equipment remained Sunday.
North Central would have been using a machine to bore horizontally to tunnel a line for fiber-optics conduit, Unite's Adkins said.
MUD said it marked gas mains and service lines in the area on Nov. 23 and again on Jan. 4 for North Central to make sure workers didn't disturb natural gas equipment or lines.
Utility spokeswoman Tracey Christensen said the MUD "has no reason to believe the locates were not correct."
MUD crews headed to the scene of the explosion after hearing on the emergency-services scanner at 2:52 p.m. that the Fire Department had been dispatched to a fire that could be tied to natural gas, the utility spokeswoman said. MUD staff arrived on the scene at 3:16 p.m., she said; gas was shut off at 4:28 p.m., according to the utility.
Beckie Lefler, who lives in the condominiums above the Market House restaurant on Howard Street, said she smelled gas before the explosion.
She said when she came home on Saturday, at about 2:35 p.m., she was hit by a wave of gas fumes when she got out of her car. She said she knew something was wrong, and rushed into the building to warn her neighbors. There are 12 condos above Market House; there were five apartments above M's.
"The smell of gas was so overwhelming, I knew something was going to happen," said Lefler, whose condo building next to M's Pub suffered serious smoke and water damage. "I just thought 'Oh my God, this building is going to blow up, people have to get out."
She said the workers outside the building were sitting in pickup trucks outside M's Pub; others were standing nearby, she said.
"Everybody was just sitting there like it was a lovely spring day and nothing was wrong," she said.
Angelina Mangiamelli, a server at M's Pub for four years, said on Saturday she sat down to lunch around 2:20 or 2:30 p.m., with two other servers at a table in the front window of M's.
She said she saw three fiber-optics workers outside, and said one was "pacing back and forth," and looking down into the exterior stairwell at the front of the building.
Mangiamelli smelled gas and went outside, where she said the smell was "super, super strong — really bad."
"I said, 'Hey, is everything OK? It smells like gas really bad,'" she recalled Sunday.
"They said, 'Yes, we hit a gas line.'"
She said she went inside and told the kitchen staff, who shut down cooking equipment and went to the basement to turn off utilities.
Mangiamelli, her manager Scott Sasser and other workers decided to evacuate the building, she and Sasser told The World-Herald. As they worked to help guests leave the building, she said, a blast shook the floor, knocking her to the ground.
Sasser said he went to the back of the restaurant to ask a larger table of people to get up when "the whole place exploded."
Mangiamelli said she thought the workers outside had time to call 911 if they did hit a gas line.
"I just don't understand how I smelled something and went outside, and these guys worked, and that's their job, and knew something was wrong and didn't call the police," she said.
Susie Keuck, who owns Nouvelle Eve, which is next door to M's Pub, said that on Saturday afternoon, a client came in the front door. As the door opened, Keuck said she smelled natural gas.
"It was just so extreme," she said. "It was obvious there was a problem."
Keuck said she walked outside and saw a crew of about five men working in the street.
"I made eye contact with who I thought was the supervisor and said, 'Natural gas?' and he shook his head yes. It made me nervous that they weren't right on it."
Keuck walked back in her store and told her employees to look up the number for MUD and call the utility.
"I took about six steps into the store, heading back toward the middle, and the window between us and M's Pub exploded into the store," she said. "It was like slow motion. I just saw glass and debris and smoke and dirt in the air. Everyone was screaming and trying to get down."
Nouvelle Eve also was destroyed. Adkins, of fiber-optic company Unite, said it's common for a contractor that smells gas to immediately call 911 and then the gas company. He said North Central contacted Unite after the fire had broken out.
Adkins said Unite didn't contact emergency officials because North Central said it already had done so.
"We ourselves did not make a call," he said. "We were told it had already been done."
He said he was heartbroken by the fire. "We're just sick that a historic building in the Old Market was somehow damaged," Adkins said.
Mark and Vera Mercer, owners of the M's building, lost their home, which was on the top floor. The roof of the building collapsed, along with several of the building's floors. A relative of Mark Mercer said he wasn't up to talking Sunday. The Mercer family developed much of the Old Market.
Chris Janicek, owner of Cupcake Omaha, on Sunday watched firefighters shoot water into the building from his shop kitty-corner from the destroyed businesses. Late Sunday night, firefighters still were shooting water onto the M's building.
At the height of the fire Saturday, there were 60 firefighters on the scene battling the flames in subzero weather, Fire Chief Kanger said. There were 174 firefighters on duty for the whole city at that time, he said.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said the city would have a press conference Monday at 3 p.m. Kanger will attend, along with officials from the Public Works Department, she said.
Kanger said he continues to read in news reports that a gas leak caused the explosion, but he cautioned the cause of the fire hasn't been determined by the department's investigators.
"We're only 26 hours into the incident, and this is a major investigation for us, and this is going to take some time for us to put all these pieces together," he said.
If someone did hit a gas line, though, Kanger said the first telephone call should have been to 911.