A Jan. 9 explosion and blaze destroyed longtime businesses and left more than a dozen people without homes.

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“There is so much excitement,” owner Ann Mellen said. “We have the staff hired, and we are ready to go.” The restaurant was destroyed by a fire in January 2016.

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Aggrieved property owners on Friday received court permission to add the ratepayer-owned natural gas utility to the list of companies alleged to be responsible for the January 2016 rupture of a natural-gas line, explosion and fire.

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Typically, a fire marshal’s investigation that finds probable fault under the state’s pipeline safety act ends with an operator like MUD fixing the deficiency, and the marshal closing the case after a follow-up inspection. But after an unusually lengthy review, the marshal sent a letter to the attorney general on Dec. 8, asking that he “bring an action against” MUD in district court.

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The Metropolitan Utilities District anticipates it will spend roughly $400,000 on outside legal fees in 2017. If the budget for next year’s legal expenses holds up, it would nearly double the $226,469 MUD has spent on outside legal help this year.

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Ron Samuelson, who has run M’s for 30 years with business partner Ann Mellen, plans to open Herbe Sainte, a restaurant and cocktail bar, this fall on the ground level of the Gordman’s building in Aksarben Village. He’s also in negotiations to open a second west Omaha restaurant as part of a new restaurant group that he’s running with his nephews.

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MUD “caused and contributed” to damages alleged by Old Market property owner Mercer Management in its April lawsuit, according to documents filed by Minnesota-based North Central Service, which was drilling underground when a natural-gas line was ruptured.

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Deputy City Attorney Bernard in den Bosch sent a letter to North Central Service Inc. and its insurance company on April 22 outlining the city’s expenses, though the company has appealed the bill. The letter says that the city is charging the company under a city ordinance that allows it to recover expenses in a “hazardous material emergency.”

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North Central Service Inc., of Bemidji, Minnesota, was cited for one serious violation for allegedly failing to use “safe and acceptable” means to determine the location of underground utilities in the area.

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Demolition has begun inside. A chute that runs from the building’s top floor into a big trash bin in the alley is being used to dispose of debris. Also being thrown down the chute: the walls inside the units, hallways and common areas.

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Nicholas Bonham-Carter, a partner in the Mercer Management property firm that owns the M’s building in Omaha’s Old Market, told The World Herald the project could take several weeks to several months. Construction will start as soon as the necessary equipment is available, he said — as soon as Friday or Monday.

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Business has been slow at many Old Market shops since the Jan. 9 fire that gutted the building that was home to M’s Pub restaurant and Nouvelle Eve boutique. The destruction of those two businesses, plus street and sidewalk closures at 11th and Howard Streets, kept customers away, shop owners say.

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Robin Larsen, an Omaha native and a California resident who is the daughter of the late M’s Pub founder, Mary Vogel, emailed Verizon Chief Executive Lowell McAdam this month. She asked for him to “take a personal interest in this tragedy” that burned the historic building, destroying the pub, apartments and the Nouvelle Eve boutique, and damaging condos, a shop and another restaurant.

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At Niche, a furniture store just west of the Market House restaurant, owner Rich Anderson has been waiting for more information about what might be salvageable from his store. He said he hasn’t been able to get into the store for more than 20 minutes since the fire except for a brief visit to grab his cash drawer.

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The crews melted ice off the sidewalk with hot water, then vacuumed the melt water away. They were to saw through the sidewalk, then squirt 4 feet of dirt away with pressurized water, sucking up the dirt to reveal gas lines in the area where an excavation crew was digging for a fiber-optic installation right before the Jan. 9 fire started.

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Assistant City Planning Director Jay Davis said the city now may not need to tear down the M's Pub awning before the excavation. But it will still be necessary to remove the damaged awning, he said.

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Omaha trial attorney David Domina said Tuesday that he has been hired by the owners of the destroyed M’s Pub to handle legal matters. That could mean lawsuits are coming after the Saturday fire that tore through the landmark building in the Old Market, leaving only a scarred hulk.

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The Fire Department has handed over the building to the city’s Planning Department, which will check for structural damage and let fire investigators know when it’s safe enough for them to go back in to start trying to determine a cause of the fire.

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The frozen shell of the M’s Pub building might not survive the fire that ravaged it and the ice that encases it, but the owner is determined to rebuild the Old Market institution. Meanwhile, investigators are waiting for the building to be stabilized before they can go in and try to determine what caused Saturday’s explosion and fire.

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Monday morning, firefighters stopped pumping water into the M's Pub building and all crews pulled out from the location at 11th ad Howard Streets. An executive at a company that had hired a contractor to do work at 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.

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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.

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Omaha Fire Chief Bernie Kanger said Sunday around noon that it hasn't been determined whether the fire was related to natural gas. The city 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.

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Old Market shop owners worried Sunday that cleanup and reconstruction of the building destroyed in Saturday’s fire could put a freeze on business. They asked Omahans for support.

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The restaurant’s interior hasn’t changed much since the late Mary Vogel opened it in 1972, originally as a pub that served food. She worked with three architects on the design of the space, a design that Bob Peters, a former Omaha city planner, an architect and an M’s regular himself, called timeless.

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Within hours, one of the city’s most beloved restaurants — a landmark and anchor in the Old Market — was no more. And a historic four-story building located on the busiest corner in the Old Market was gone, entirely engulfed in flames.

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