Condo resident: “Everything is just up in the air”

Update, 9:45 p.m.: Marsha Congdon has lived on the second floor of the building above The Market House restaurant since 2008. The building suffered heavy smoke and water damage.

She was in Minnesota on Saturday and heard about the fire from another resident who called her and let her know all the residents had been evacuated.

Most of her neighbors, she said, stayed at hotels or with friends on Saturday night. She said they don’t have much information as they haven't been allowed back into the building because of the unstable nature of the M’s Pub building next door.

The M's building was destroyed — its roof collapsed and interior floors collapsed on top of each other. There are five apartments in that building. The building that houses the Market House also is home to 12 condos above the restaurant; that building suffered severe water and smoke damage. Investigators are awaiting the OK to enter the building to check to see if it was damaged by the fire, too, and to determine its prospects for repair, residents said.

“All we know is that the basement is full of water,” Congdon said. “Like everyone else last night, we thought it was going to be controlled and contained, and then it just got bigger and bigger.”

Congdon said she had been driving all day Sunday to get back to Omaha for a meeting of the Old Market homeowners.

“Everything is just up in the air,” she said. “Everyone is safe, we are just trying to figure out what the next steps are."


Residents still waiting to hear updates on status of condominiums

Update, 7:08 p.m.: Anne and Mike Boyle lived for 18 years in the condominiums above The Market House before they moved elsewhere in the city; their former unit still is identifiable by the Statue of Liberty replica they left behind that decorates the third-floor window on Howard Street.

Anne Boyle said they received many phone calls Saturday and Sunday from former neighbors and out-of-town friends who were concerned for their well-being. Boyle still holds affection for her former neighborhood.

"I was sick," she said, upon hearing the news. "I am so sad."

There are 12 condos above the Market House; residents haven't been able to return to their units, which have suffered severe water and smoke damage, they say. They're still waiting for officials to enter the building to determine whether there was extensive fire damage. There are five apartments above M's.

Anne Boyle, a former member of the Nebraska Public Service Commission and member of a political family, said M’s Pub was a huge part of the allure of living in the Old Market. Her husband, Mike, is a former mayor of Omaha.

Of M's, Anne Boyle said: "The food was always wonderful. The staff was always courteous and fun. (Long time M’s employee) Scott Sasser calls me ‘mom’ and I call him ‘son,” she said, laughing. “Never a bad thing happened there. I think was the most special place in Omaha," she said.

Anne Boyle said if there is one man who can rebuild in the Old Market, that man is Mark Mercer, who developed the Old Market with his family.

“He really respects the past. I hope what he would want to do is restore it to what it was,” she said, “because it was so unique.”


City on M's building: 'We hope it doesn’t have to come down'

Update, 5:10 p.m.: Jay Davis, superintendent of the City of Omaha's Planning Department, said there was work on the block of 11th and Howard Streets. He told The World-Herald he didn't immediately know what contractor was involved in the work, but said it had to do with fiber optics.

Employees and patrons at M's Pub on that block said they smelled a strong odor of natural gas before an explosion Saturday afternoon destroyed the building. A contractor could have hit a gas line, causing the explosion, though that is a theory some have floated that hasn't been confirmed. The Metropolitan Utilities District said workers in the area weren't with the utility.

Davis, the Planning Department superintendent, said he didn't know yet whether the M's Pub building would be a total loss and have to come down. The roof and the building's third and fourth floors have collapsed, leaving mostly a shell. He said he expected to have better access to the structure Monday morning. Right now, the fire department isn't letting people into the building, he said.

"The fire department is still working on hot spots today. There is so much ice and debris, we decided it's not safe to enter."

He said he has concerns about the integrity of the structure because of the huge amounts of water that were poured onto the building, and the ice that subsequently formed.

Water can seep into brick, and expand when it freezes. That damages the brick, he said.

"The building is like a giant popsicle right now," he said. "We hope it doesn’t have to come down. It’s a significant building in the Old Market; it’s on a wonderful corner."

He said there is no "imminent danger" of a building collapse, , though he noted "we have a pretty big drop zone just in case."

* * *

At height of blaze, 60 firefighters were on the scene

Sunday, 12:40 p.m., UPDATE: Omaha Fire Chief Bernie Kanger told The World-Herald he can't disclose the cause of the fire because it's still under investigation. It hasn't been determined whether it was related to natural gas, he said Sunday around noon. It would be "premature" to speculate, he said.

People who were in the Old Market before the apparent explosion on Saturday afternoon reported smelling a strong odor of natural gas just before the fire broke out. 

Kanger said he would not immediately allow the release of the 911 calls in relation to the fire because of the ongoing investigation into its cause. 

Fire personnel remained on the scene at midday Sunday to watch for hot spots and hit them with water, he said. The worst of the fire has been extinguished. The city's chief building inspector and the fire department will be on the scene for a number of days, Kanger said. 

At the height of the fire Saturday, there were 60 firefighters on the scene battling the flames in subzero weather, Kanger said. There were 174 firefighters on duty for the whole city at that time, he said.

* * *

Mercers' home above M's Pub destroyed

Sunday, 12:05 p.m., UPDATE: Paul Kulik, who runs Le Bouillon, between 10th and 11th on Howard Street, said he felt the explosion in his office at the restaurant on Saturday afternoon. He came out to the street to investigate, he said.

"Someone came through moments later and said, 'M’s is on fire,' " he said. "One of our managers was already in the street marshaling everyone into Le Bouillon because it was like, 1 degree."

The staff of M's Pub as well as The Market House restaurant, which also was heavily damaged, gathered in the dining room at Le Bouillon throughout the afternoon Saturday.

"It kind of became a place where they could warm up and have some coffee or whatever," Kulik said. "Everyone was trying to figure out what was going on."

Kulik, who is close to Mark and Vera Mercer, spoke with them Saturday night. The Mercers own the M's Pub building. Kulik runs The Boiler Room restaurant with the Mercers, who also own that building and others around the Old Market, which the Mercer family developed.

The Mercers' home, on the top floor of the M's Pub building, was completely destroyed. They couldn't be immediately reached.

Kulik said Vera Mercer housed most, if not all, of her artwork in the home above M's. Mark Mercer’s ceramic and watercolor pieces also were in the home.

As for Le Bouillon, Kulik said the restaurant is open today. "We want to offer that to our neighborhood," he said. "We want to make sure that people who work down here and live down here have some place to go and warm up and talk.

"It reminds you of why you get into the hospitality business. It is a really important place at times like this.”

* * *

'We are going to rebuild,' Market House owner says 

Sunday, 11:30 a.m., UPDATE: Nick Bartholomew, who co-owns The Market House restaurant, said water was pouring into his restaurant’s bar and dining room area this morning. The restaurant is next to the Nouvelle Eve shop on the corner of 11th and Howard Streets.

“Massive amounts of water,” he said. “Two or three feet of water in the basement.”

He had not been able to get inside the restaurant Sunday morning, but he said he is determined to remain in the Old Market.

“We are going to rebuild,” he said. “This is home.”

Bartholomew said The Market House was closed when the explosion happened, but around 10 staff members were in the restaurant yesterday afternoon.

“The manager was lifted off his feet,” he said. “His ears are still ringing this morning.”

Chefs and other employees left all their personal belongings in the space.

“We can’t believe there were no injuries," he said.

* * *

Tea Smith fares better than other businesses near fire 

Sunday, 11:20 a.m. UPDATE: Tim Smith, who owns the Tea Smith at 1118 Howard St., said his business fared better than many others.

The tea shop is next door to the west of Market House restaurant, which sustained heavy damage.

Smith was in the Old Market Sunday morning, he said, but he was not able to get inside his tea shop. He said there is likely water in the basement, but the building, which he shares with other businesses including Billy Froggs, City Limits and Stokes, seems otherwise undamaged.

Smith said he expects the neighborhood to rebound.

“The Old Market will still be one of Omaha’s jewels,” he said. “We have sustained a loss in that a great historic building with well-known and loved businesses and restaurants is gone now. But I am sure whatever we do going forward will enhance the character of the area.”

* * *

Red Cross offers aid to condo residents

Sunday, 10:40 a.m. UPDATE: The American Red Cross offered assistance to residents of the condominiums above M's Pub who were displaced by the fire that ravaged the historic building.

The Omaha Fire Department says the interior ceilings of the building have collapsed on each other. Liz Dorland, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in Omaha said some displaced people had taken advantage of the Red Cross's offer of shelter on Saturday night at the Residence Inn on 15th and Dodge Streets, which had given the Red Cross a special rate for those affected.

Other residents of the condominiums were staying with family, friends or elsewhere, Dorland said.

The Red Cross was on the scene providing support — like hot chocolate and warm blankets — to firefighters and others; it left the area around 2 a.m. Sunday. If the Fire Department calls, the Red Cross will return to the scene if it's needed, she said.

"As the day wears on, we do anticipate more individuals calling the Red Cross about assistance," she said.

People affected by the fire who need help should call the Red Cross's disaster number at 844-334-7569, Dorland said.

* * * 

Firefighters facing 'worst possible conditions' 

Sunday, 10:30 a.m. UPDATE: Assistant Omaha Fire Chief Steve Ausdemore said firefighters were working in the "worst possible conditions." He said there had been slips, falls and equipment failures.

"You're spraying water at 8,000 pounds a minute" on a building that has a compromised structure because of the fire, he said Sunday morning.

Still, the building is standing, Ausdemore said. Once fire gets hold of century-old timber buildings, it can ravage them, he said. But the design features of the building did their job, and it remains, even though the interior floors of the building have collapsed upon themselves, he said.

* * *

Rebuilding of M's Pub up in the air, co-owner says

Sunday, 10:20 a.m. UPDATE: Ron Samuelson, who co-owned M’s Pub, said he knows little more today than he did last night, when his restaurant was still burning.

One thing he does know: “The building is gone,” he said.

He said he doesn't know how long it will take to figure out what caused the fire.

“I don’t know how long it is going to take for them to figure out who is responsible," he said.

As far as rebuilding, Samuelson said the question was up in the air. "I don’t know the time frame or possibilities," he said.

Samuelson said rebuilding M’s Pub depends on the structural situation of the building, costs and insurance. Mark and Vera Mercer own the building, and he has not yet spoken with them. The Mercers lived on the top floor of the building.

“I am sure they are struggling to get their brains wrapped around what comes next,” he said. “This has been in their family for a long time. And it was their home.”

Samuelson said many of his M's employees have been offered part-time work at other Omaha restaurants.

Samuelson said he knows longtime customers and regulars of M’s Pub have lots of memories in the space.

“I know that everyone is really sad, and I know that everyone is really scared,” he said. “So am I. So is Ann," he said, referring to co-owner Ann Mellen.

He said it’s moments like these when those long-time customers come through. Former employees of M’s who live across the United States have been in touch with Samuelson.

“What the future looks like, I really don’t know,” he said. “But the sun came up this morning. I checked.”

* * *

Onlookers check out fire scene 

Sunday, 8:20 am. UPDATE: Onlookers began making their way to the M's Pub fire scene early Sunday. The Omaha Police Department had the area cordoned off, making a direct view of the fire-ravaged building difficult.

The M's building at 11th and Howard Streets was encased in ice after being hammered with water throughout Saturday evening and overnight. Two hoses continued to spray water onto parts of the building Sunday morning.

Looking into the building's windows, it appeared as if the inside was gutted; through window frames with no glass, one could see only emptiness.

No flames were visible a little after 8 a.m. Earlier, firefighters had battled a flare-up; they remain on guard.

* * *

Fire hoses reduced from four to three 

Sunday, 6:20 a.m. UPDATE: Ice hung from the gutted-out building that once held M's Pub, as flashes of fire still could be seen through a second-story window around 6 a.m. Firefighters were dousing the fire with water from one hose.

Only frames were left in many of the windows on the once-stately building that Sunday morning was frosty white from the water but still standing. Fears that the old four-story brick building would collapse abated as the night wore on into this morning.

What was clear as morning began to dawn is that the building in the northwest corner of 11th and Howard Street is fire-ravaged.

Four hoses had been aimed at the building; firefighters began to load up one of the hoses at about 5:30 a.m., reducing the number of hoses to three.

At about the same hour, curious Omahans began to appear outside the building snapping pictures of the disaster for posterity.

A city plow waited on a side street, apparently prepared to move in and try to clean up nearby streets covered in more than 2 inches of ice from the runoff of the water that had been directed at the fire.

The big question now is what started the fire? Was it a natural gas leak as many of the witnesses, waiters and workers suspect?

And how much smoke and fire damage did the adjacent building sustain? (It was the building many associated with a Statue of Liberty figurine displayed in the window of a condo formerly owned by former Omaha Mayor Mike Boyle who had moved out of the building a couple of years ago.)

About a dozen people living in that building were evacuated yesterday. They spent the night with relatives or friends, uncertain about what they would find when they return.

Another big question is whether M's Pub will rebuild.

Greg Cutchall, the owner of two restaurants in Omaha, planned to offer M's employees temporary jobs until a new M's reopened.

Cutchall is the owner of Jams American Grill, a new restaurant located down the street from M's, and Jams on West Dodge Road.

"I reached out to my friend and neighbor Ron Samuelson to let him know that we would offer temporary jobs to as many of his staff as we can take on in hopes they will rebuild and reopen," Cutchall wrote in an email.

Samuelson is one of the co-owners of M's Pub. He said earlier Saturday the he would rebuild, but that was before it became apparent that the building was now a brick shell.

World-Herald staff writer Jeff Bundy contributed to this report.

* * *

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