2:20 a.m. UPDATE: The frigid conditions firefighters dealt with throughout Saturday have only gotten worse overnight, with the wind chill expected to drop as low as 25 degrees below zero. By 6 a.m., the temperature in downtown Omaha is expected to range between four and eight degrees below zero, according to the National Weather Service office in Valley.

1:50 UPDATE: Fire Chief Bernie Kanger said fire investigators did not believe the flames spread to nearby buildings. However, he said, they could have been damaged by smoke and water.

Fire crews have not yet been able to get into the upper floors above the restaurant, Kanger said. They had safety concerns, as parts of the building had collapsed and were unstable.

"It could be days before we can get in there to determine what happened," Kanger said.

Meanwhile, firefighters continued to pour water into the building in the early morning hours, and ice encrusted the facade and the awning that hangs over the sidewalk.

1:45 UPDATE: Firefighters still at the scene say they will have to leave their rigs overnight due to frozen hose lines that can't be detached.

12:40 UPDATE: Fire Chief Bernie Kanger said early this morning that “the fire for all practical purposes is out.” He said firefighters had started to scale back, were focused on hot spots and still dealing with a great deal of smoke.

Kanger said crews hoped to be able to enter the building at first light to assess damage and integrity of the building.

The one bright note in the day was that no one was killed. One man was seriously injured and taken to the Nebraska Medical Center, Kanger said.

12:30 UPDATE: A stubborn blaze continued to crackle inside the building and firefighters continued to pour water on it.

But the fire was not as intense, and firefighters appeared to have made progress. Flames no longer shot from the building's windows.

10:10 p.m. UPDATE: The three-alarm fire is still not under control, according to Fire Chief Bernie Kanger. There is no evidence at this time of the flames spreading to the building to west, Kanger said.

9:16 UPDATE: The American Red Cross is looking to locate families that have been displaced by the fire, said Liz Dorland, the organization's communications officer. While not sure how many people have been affected, the agency knows 14 units were in the building. Red Cross team members are knocking on doors trying to locate people needing housing or assistance.

People who need help are encouraged to go to the Residence Inn at 106 S. 15th St., where the Red Cross has a staging area.

People who want to help the fire victims can text 90999 to automatically donate $10 or phone 1-800-Red-Cross.

8:47 UPDATE: Fire Chief Bernie Kanger said firefighters are concerned that the building could potentially collapse or that the fire could spread to another building to the west. At 8:40 p.m., flames were still roaring up through the roof.

Firefighters and bystanders have been moved to near the corners of the building because, if the structure were to collapse, it's expected that the front of the building would fall onto 11th Street.

The fire was first reported at 2:51 p.m., and had grown to three alarms by 7:30 p.m. Additional alarms bring additional manpower to the scene. By nightfall, firefighters from across the city had responded to the Old Market.

No firefighters have been injured, but the extreme cold was creating mechanical problems with the equipment, Kanger said. The chief said one person had been injured and was taken in serious condition to the Nebraska Medical Center.

He said he could confirm only that there was a report of a possible explosion that preceded the fire. He also couldn't identify the origin of the fire, saying that was under investigation.

The first floor of M's Pub has partially collapsed. He said a lot of the interior is wood and highly combustible. That led firefighters to adopt a "defensive position," withdrawing from the building and fighting the fire from outside the structure.

Kanger said there are a lot of open spaces in the building, allowing the fire to spread quickly to the second and third floors.

As water poured off the front of the building, long icicles formed off the awning at the building's entrance.

7:48 UPDATE: The Old Market explosion has gotten much worse in the last hour.

The fire at M's Pub has gotten bigger, and the entire roof is now engulfed in flames.

Firefighters now fear the entire building could collapse.

7:40 UPDATE: Flames are visible shooting out of the top of the building. Firefighters have been instructed to stay away from the center of the building and take up positions at the corners, fearing collapse of some or all of the structure.

* * *

The waitresses and the chefs at M's Pub had a few minutes warning before today's explosion, which may have saved several lives, witnesses said.

Scott Sasser, a longtime waiter at M's Pub, said employees immediately began to evacuate the restaurant after they smelled a strong odor of natural gas. He believes — although he does not know for sure — that workers who had been working and digging outside the restaurant for several days had hit a gas line.

Nearly everybody was out when the explosion occurred, although a cook who was coming up from the basement was injured, said Sasser.

"We started evacuating right before it happened. One of our cooks — on the back stairwell that blew up — was hurt," said Sasser, who has worked at M's Pub for nine years.

"I was in there when the windows blew out, it was just surreal," said Sasser, who was shocked and shaken about an hour after the explosion.

Firefighters are continuing to shoot water into M’s Pub at this hour, as waitresses and witnesses gather to tell their story of what happened in this afternoon’s blast.

It does not appear at this time — three hours after the explosion — that the fire is contained.

And, by all accounts, the damage is going to be extensive to not only M’s Pub but to two surrounding buildings: The Market House and Nouvelle Eve.

Nick Bartholomew, co-owner of The Market House, said the explosion occurred in the basement. He said the buildings are filled with smoke, and he hasn’t been able to go back inside.

One of the owners of M’s Pub — Ron Samuelson — said he also believes the damage will be extensive, but he has already vowed to rebuild.

"From the looks of it, I can't believe that someone wasn't more seriously hurt," said Samuelson, who is in Phoenix, but heard that his restaurant was in flames via a text message.

"Our customers will rally around us," said Samuelson, who owns the restaurant with Ann Mellen. "They always have when things have happened in the past."

M's Pub was one of the first restaurants in Omaha's downtown district known as the Old Market. It and surrounding condo buildings were rocked by an explosion at 2:51 p.m. on Saturday. It happened shortly after several people had called 911 to notify authorities that they smelled natural gas. The building was quickly engulfed in flames.

No one was seriously hurt, although three people were taken to the hospital.

Flames were spotted shooting out of the building toward the alley at about 5:15 p.m. this afternoon, and firefighters remain on the scene in force, according to several witnesses.

Metropolitan Utilities District employees turned off the gas at 4:30 p.m., utility spokeswoman Tracey Christensen said.

Christensen said it was not clear whether the explosion was caused by a natural gas leak. The utility was working with the Omaha Fire Department and the State Fire Marshal’s Office to determine the explosion's cause. She said investigation would take a couple of days.

As a precaution, MUD used gas leak detection equipment in the area surrounding the M's building after the fire there and found no leaks, Christensen said.

MUD employees were not working in the area of 11th and Howard Streets today before they were called to turn off the gas.

The restaurant and the corner boutique known as Nouvelle Eve is filled with smoke. At times, downtown was so thick and strong with smoke that it almost felt like night. Bystandeers covered their mouths and noses wtih coats and scarves, while cooks, dishwashers and waiters from nearby Old Market restaurants stood outside M’s, taking photos and talking to each other.

A traffic jam quickly formed downtown, as people who learned about the fire headed downtown to see it for themselves.

The Omaha Fire Department suspended all mutual aid agreements to Sarpy and Douglas Counties until the fire is declared under control.

It is too early to tell the exact level of damage to the historic restaurant that was one of Omaha’s most beloved institutions, but it appears to be extensive.

Everyone in the restaurants and the 14 condo units above and next to M's Pub were safely evacuated. At least 12 people are looking for a place to spend the night.

One of those condo-dwellers is Marilyn Turtellot, who lived on the fourth and fifth floor in the building next to M's Pub. She was upstairs when she heard the explosion, and looked out the window.

“It almost knocked me out of the chair. And, I went right to the front window and saw all the people running out of M’s, and all the workers running across the street,” said Turtellot who has lived in the Old Market for more than a decade.

Shortly before the explosion, several people called 911 to report the smell of natural gas. The Fire Department said there was a leak in the basement. A person who lives above M’s Pub said she has seen crews working on pipes in and around the building for about a week.

Metropolitan Utilities District employees were at the scene.

Three people with injuries that were not serious but that needed medical attention were taken to a hospital. Three ambulances were called to the scene.

When Turtellot and others got out of the building, they saw flames shooting from the front of the building. Acrid smoke and fine debris filled the air.

Police and firefighters were on the scene in minutes.

Street construction crews had been working in the area for several days, with heavy equipment. They scrambled to move their trucks and equipment away from the burning building.

Buildings next to M’s were also evacuated, including Old Chicago and Jams.

Seth McMillan lives in building above M’s and owns McLovin men’s clothing store a little east on Howard. He was told that all apartment residents got out safely. His shop has closed.

McMillan helped Turtello leave the building. The two took shelter in an art gallery across the street.

Pete Tracey, who lives on third floor of a building in the same block but facing Howard Street, said he was not allowed in his building – it has been evacuated by authorities – but learned from other residents that everyone got out OK.

He said people in the area reported feeling a concussion.

“It is so sad. It is so iconic,” Gena Dushan said of the damage to M’s.

He said he has been told that no one in restaurant at the time – it was open for business - was hurt but that one person elsewhere in the building was injured.

He added that he has been told that all the glass in the front of building was blown out.

“It’s a tragedy no matter who it happens to,” Samuelson said when asked about the impact on this Omaha icon. “It’s the people who live there that I’m really worried about.”

One person, he said, has been there 30 years.

World-Herald staff writers Emerson Clarridge and Janice Podsada contributed to this report.

Contact the writers: 402-444-1309, robynn.tysver@owh.compaige.yowell@owh.com, 402-444-1414

Follow Omaha.com for more on this developing story.

* * *

More coverage of the fire

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Please keep it clean, turn off CAPS LOCK and don't threaten anyone. Be truthful, nice and proactive. And share with us - we love to hear eyewitness accounts.

You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.