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.
Omahans were still reeling Monday as they saw the aftermath at the northwest corner of 11th and Howard Streets. Fire Chief Bernie Kanger said it took about 60 firefighters roughly nine hours to get the fire under control.
And questions remained about the events leading up to the fire, including why nearby construction workers don’t appear to have reported a gas leak before the explosion and why MUD didn’t shut off the gas for more than an hour after workers arrived on scene.
The most damage occurred in the M’s Pub building, where the fire started. Kanger said the first floor and roof both collapsed.
Mayor Jean Stothert described parts of that building as “pretty much destroyed,” though she said she hopes that some of the structure could be salvaged. She said at a Monday press conference that the building and restaurant owners have said they want to rebuild and reopen.
She said everyone is hoping to “save and rebuild the centerpiece of the Old Market.” If the shell can be saved, that could happen within two years, she said.
Mark Mercer, the building’s owner, emerged Monday morning from the office of Mercer Management, which is next to the restaurant he owns, La Buvette.
Mercer, clad in a thin trench coat and looking weary, said he wouldn’t know much about the building “until the inspectors and experts tell us.”
Mercer and his wife, artist Vera Mercer, have lived on the top floor of the M’s Pub building for more than three decades. The couple are staying at a nearby hotel.
The Mercer family was instrumental in developing the Old Market.
Stothert, who met with the Mercer family Monday, said Mark Mercer asked her to convey his gratitude to the community for support.
Before investigators can get into the building, it must be stabilized for safety, said Jay Davis, superintendent of permits and inspections. He said parts of 11th and Howard Streets will remain blocked off while that happens.
Two main concerns are an awning and the north wall, which Davis said is essentially unsupported.
Davis said it’s not certain that the building can be saved. He said if the weather freezes and thaws too quickly, that could further damage the structure. But he said he’s hopeful.
“Certainly we don’t want to see that building torn down,” he said. “It’s kind of a signature for us.”
To the west of M’s Pub, another building that is the home of 12 condos also was damaged, though not as badly. City officials said fire inspectors were inside that building Monday, and they hope to allow residents to collect their things and assess damage by Friday.
Kanger said the fire was fueled by gas and noted that there was a work crew near the building when the explosion happened just before 3 p.m. Saturday.
He stopped short of linking a gas leak to the construction being performed by North Central Service of Bemidji, Minnesota, which was working for Kansas City-based Unite Private Networks on a fiber-optic project.
Investigators were interviewing North Central Service employees Monday. Assistant Fire Chief Dan Olsen described the company as cooperative.
Olsen asked for patience and said the investigation into the cause of the fire could take weeks or months. Olsen said it would probably involve hundreds of interviews and digging through four floors of rubble.
Kanger said all evidence so far shows that the fire was most likely an accident.
Even before Saturday’s fire, Nebraska Public Service Commission members have been “alarmed” by the number of times that workers have hit underground gas and telecommunications lines, including 911 systems, Commissioner Crystal Rhoades said.
She said the commission plans to vote at its regular meeting Jan. 20 to investigate the frequency of such incidents.
“These things are occurring at a really high rate, and it’s something the commission intends to investigate,” she said. Rhoades said the goal is not to take punitive action, but to work with the state fire marshal to determine the cause of the service cuts and work to prevent them.
City officials and others also offered more information Monday about what happened before, during and immediately after the fire.
Bob Stubbe, Omaha’s public works director, said North Central Service’s nearby construction project was connected to Verizon’s plans to install small antennas on light posts in the Old Market.
Unite Private Networks was putting in the fibers because of a request from Verizon for the fiber-optic network. Verizon uses the underground fiber to transmit data but does not install or own the fiber.
Unite hired North Central Services to work on the installation. North Central didn’t return calls from The World-Herald on Sunday or Monday.
Unite Private Networks President Jason Adkins told The World-Herald that the fiber optics being installed were part of a fiber “backbone,” typically available for use by one or more customers.
Adkins said he spoke Monday by phone with a city fire investigator, but Unite does not have any formal interviews scheduled with the Fire Department.
Verizon spokeswoman Karen Smith said “no Verizon employees were involved or present” when the explosion happened. To Verizon’s knowledge, Smith said, the company had not been contacted about the investigation into the blast and fire.
A different Verizon spokeswoman, Lynn Staggs, had previously told The World-Herald that the explosion and fire were not related to Verizon work. Smith said Monday that Staggs works in a different area of Verizon and “wasn’t able to track that down” on Sunday.
On Saturday afternoon, witnesses said, there was a strong smell of gas outside the building. It prompted M’s employees to evacuate.
But Kanger, the fire chief, said there is no record of anyone calling 911 about natural gas before the fire.
“There were no calls for gas leaks or an odor of gas,” Kanger said. “There were absolutely no calls for a suspicious odor or gas.”
One neighbor disputed that in an interview with The World-Herald, saying she called 911 at 2:50 p.m. Saturday to report a gas odor.
That’s about the same time that calls began coming in about the explosion and fire.
Acting Douglas County 911 Director Mark Conrey released a list of what he said were the first four calls to 911 about the incident, which came in between 2:50 and 2:51 p.m. All reported a fire.
One call came from a worker for North Central Service. He told the 911 operator that there had been an explosion at M’s Pub. He said he believed that a natural gas line had been hit, and he believed that there were going to be injuries.
On Monday, a man who answered at the phone number used to call 911 declined to comment.
“Not to sound rude, but at this point, we’re not going to release any statements to the press in lieu of the investigation,” said the man, who did not give his name.
MUD workers arrived on the fire scene at 3:16 p.m., according to Kanger. The gas was shut off at 4:28 — more than an hour later.
When asked why it took so long for them to shut off the gas, Kanger referred questions to MUD.
When further questioned, Olsen, the assistant chief, said that was an unusually long amount of time to wait for gas to be shut off.
Tracey Christensen, a MUD spokeswoman, said by email, “The investigation is ongoing and once it is completed we will issue an update that will include the information you’re requesting.”
Kanger said while gas is flowing, it’s safer for firefighters if the fire continues. Otherwise, the gas continues builds up and might find another ignition point, he said.
Kanger described the explosion and fire in bitterly cold conditions as the second-worst fire he’s seen, after the Butternut building fire of 2004.
One firefighter suffered a broken hand after slipping on ice. Firefighters took one M’s Pub employee to the hospital, and Kanger said other injured people went to the hospital on their own.
Kanger said M’s had a working smoke detector but no sprinkler system, which was not required.
“The fact that there were no fatalities in this event is nothing short of a miracle,” Kanger said.
World-Herald staff writers Barbara Soderlin, Janice Podsada, Cindy Gonzalez and Sarah Baker Hansen contributed to this report.
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