Update, Monday 12:20 a.m.: Witnesses say they warned work crew of natural gas smell; fire chief says no one called 911
The Metropolitan Utilities District said there was a contractor working in the area of 11th and Howard Streets on Saturday when many business owners and patrons of Old Market businesses reported that they smelled natural gas before the explosion and fire that destroyed the M's Pub building.
The gas and water utility said the workers in the area weren't with MUD.
Susie Keuck, who owns Nouvelle Eve, which is in the same building as M's and which also was destroyed, said she saw about five workers in the street before the explosion Saturday. She talked to one of them about the strong odor of natural gas, she said. Just as she returned inside to call MUD, the windows blew out of her store, she said.
Earlier, on Nov. 23, MUD received a request to locate gas and water lines for a contractor working near 11th and Howard Streets. It marked those lines. On Jan. 4, MUD completed a request to refresh the markings that located all MUD mains and service lines in the area, the utility said.
The utility declined to disclose the name of the contractor, which couldn't be immediately determined.
Omaha firefighters doused the M's building with a flood of water throughout the night and into Sunday; because of that, the building and its surroundings are covered in ice. On Sunday, MUD couldn't verify the markings it made because of the icy conditions, said spokeswoman Tracey Christensen.
"At this point, MUD has no reason to believe the locates were not correct," she said.
It isn't clear whether the contractor working in the area might have hit a gas line. Omaha Fire Chief Bernie Kanger on Sunday told The World-Herald that it was too early to determine the cause of the fire. MUD is working with the Fire Department and the State Fire Marshal's office to determine the cause.
Kanger said the city would not release 911 tapes that might shed light on whether a contractor reported any damage that might have led to the explosion.
MUD described its timeline of Saturday's events:
>> At 2:52 p.m., the utility's dispatch office heard on a scanner talk a fire with possible natural gas involved at 422 S. 11th St., the M's Pub building.
>> MUD dispatch notified technicians at 2:53 p.m.
>> Technicians arrived to the scene by 3:16 p.m. "and proceeded the process to shut down the gas main and services," MUD said.
>> Gas was shut off to the building at 4:28 p.m., and the shutoff was verified by the Fire Department at 4:28 p.m.
"From approximately 3:30 to 4:30 p.m., additional technicians were on site to check atmosphere levels in the adjoining buildings, underground vaults and sewers," MUD's Christensen said. "Technicians completed a gas leak survey of the surrounding area and detected no leaks."
MUD techs also drove a gas leak survey truck to check sewers and vaults in the surrounding block and a half of the fire. No leaks were detected, MUD said.
Christensen was checking on why there was an hour and a half lag between the explosion report and gas shutoff.
"As soon as we hear from the Fire Department we get down there," she said. "It takes time to get it isolated."
Any contractor or company planning to dig is required to call a Nebraska hotline at least 48 business hours before any excavating project.
That "one call" networking system triggers an alert to local utilities and pertinent companies that mark the site with necessary flags or spray paint markings to help contractors avoid digging on spots that could disrupt service or create a hazard, said Christensen. The markings are valid for 10 days.
The Nebraska811 hotline also provides excavators with phone numbers to report any damage to underground utilities.