FREMONT, Neb. — Chris Rump told his brother to hurry up.
It was Saturday morning, and his brother’s bathroom break stood in the way of a weekly tradition: a hearty breakfast of eggs, hash browns and gravy at a cafe across the street from the family business, Rump Furnace & Hardware.
What happened next rocked Rump’s hometown.
Across the street, natural gas that had been leaking into the basement of Fremont’s tallest building, the six-story Pathfinder Hotel, exploded with atomic fury.
Chunks of sidewalk the size of compact cars were hurled into the air. The bottom two floors of the hotel collapsed into the basement. Windows were broken on buildings blocks away. Twenty died; 40 were injured.
The terrible concussion blasted Rump across the room.
“I thought our business blew up,” he said.
Nearly everyone in Fremont, then a community of 23,000 people, knew one of the people who died or were injured in the Jan. 10, 1976, explosion and blaze. The hotel and eight other buildings had to be demolished, hastening the migration of businesses from the city’s downtown to its outskirts.
The disaster still ranks among the nation’s worst involving a hotel.
“It changed the history of Fremont,” said retired businessman Marv Welstead. “The city’s skyline was never the same.”
Welstead and Rump were among about 200 people who gathered on Jan. 10 to dedicate a memorial to the horrendous blast 40 years earlier.
Both said they were thinking of Omaha’s Old Market, the scene of a similar, though non-fatal, explosion and fire the day before.
Welstead, who was appointed by the mayor to help the recovery process in Fremont, said that if there’s anything the Old Market can take away from the Pathfinder explosion, it would be to be patient.
It took more than a year, and a federal grant, before demolition began on the 115-room Pathfinder. Welstead said it took 2½ years to get all of the damaged buildings torn down and lots cleaned up. It was more than a decade before new construction began on the rubbled lot along busy U.S. Highway 77 where the hotel stood.
“It devastated downtown Fremont,” he said.
Built in 1917, the Pathfinder was still a hub of the community in 1976, even though many of its rooms had been converted to apartments for the elderly.
The hotel had a cafe, a lounge, the Chamber of Commerce office, a drugstore, barber shop and the “Top of the Hotel Ballroom,” the site of holiday parties and other large gatherings. In its heyday, the hotel’s famous guests included evangelist Billy Sunday and Helen Keller.
“People were in there all the time for meetings,” said Mike Semrad, who was on the committee that raised $20,000 for the disaster memorial.
People started smelling gas about 6 a.m. on the day of the explosion, which occurred at 9:33 a.m. on a chilly Saturday.
Extremely cold weather played into the tragedy. Workers had retrofitted 4-inch gas mains in the area by inserting 2-inch plastic pipes within them. Low temperatures, which fell to 25 below zero that winter, caused a new fitting to contract. It began leaking gas beneath the hotel.
Welstead, 95, said gas filled the basement of the hotel, which extended under the sidewalks surrounding the building. The blast not only blew out windows and collapsed the interior of the hotel but sent huge concrete chunks skyward.
One crashed through the roof and into the basement of the Vienna Bakery across the four lanes of Broad Street (or U.S. 77) from the hotel. Another flattened a car. Besides the eight buildings that were torn down, the top stories of two other buildings, including Rump’s Furnace, had to be removed.
“It was like an atomic bomb went off,” Semrad said.
On the day of the explosion, Welstead ended up with the grisly duty of identifying the shell-shocked, bloodied survivors as they were carried into the local hospital.
“I was so intent on helping out that it didn’t begin to dawn on me what happened until I got home and sat down,” he said.
Rump, now 66, said that when he emerged from the wreckage of his family’s business there was an “unbelievable silence.”
“It was eerie. There was not a sound at all. No birds or cars. Drapes flapping out broken windows. And then you heard a whimper coming from people up in the fifth and sixth floors of the hotel,” he said.
Rump said that he and his brother Tom helped people evacuate the hotel by walking across steel girders that spanned the blown-out sidewalks.
“Nobody was thinking about a secondary explosion. And I work with natural gas,” he said.
An auto shop behind Rump’s Furnace became a makeshift morgue. Rump said he still recalls seeing the body bags.
Joey Schwanke, whose family ran Greens Greenhouse in Fremont, said a sad procession followed as flowers were needed for funerals.
“Every time I opened the door, it was another family. It was just terrifying. Most of them were friends,” Schwanke said.
Welstead said that it took months to sort out the legal claims and insurance settlements.
At one time, Ramada Inn had drawn up plans for a new hotel and convention center on the site, but a downturn in the economy, and a rapid rise in borrowing rates, killed the project.
A high-rise apartment building for low-income people was also considered for the location. Eventually, it was built on the north side of town.
A branch bank now sits on the Pathfinder Hotel site; a strip mall is next door. Some empty lots still ring the former site, including one that’s become a small city park. It hosts the new memorial.
Why it took 40 years to erect a monument to the tragedy is unclear. Some townspeople said that it just took a long time for the sorrow and pain to subside.
Rump said he’s just thankful that his brother Jeff took so long in the bathroom. It delayed, for a few moments, the walk across the street past the hotel to Jensen’s Cafe.
“We would have been out on the street corner when (the hotel) blew,” he said. “There could have been a couple of us dead.”
Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, email@example.com