North Bend blast destructive, not deadly: ‘We were very fortunate’
An explosion early Friday destroyed three buildings in North Bend and damaged several others. Only two people suffered minor injuries.
Seattle Times staff reporter
NORTH BEND — Megan Barry’s early-rising electrician husband woke her at 4:45 a.m. Friday to show her a dark, blurry photo of a burning building he had just seen online.
He knew what it might be, and so did she, so she quickly checked a North Bend community Facebook site, where better photos confirmed her fears:
“It was my mom’s barber shop,” Barry said. “I was in shock.”
The Last Cut East barber shop was in one of three buildings destroyed about 3:30 a.m. Friday in a suspected natural gas explosion and fire that blew debris up to several blocks away, shattering windows and glass doors in a wide area.
A closed pizza restaurant being renovated and a mini-mall that included an accounting office, dance studio and hair salon also were destroyed. In addition, a service station and tire store flanking the demolished business were heavily damaged.
Dozens of apartments in a complex across the street, as well as nearby houses, had windows shattered and belongings knocked off walls and shelves.
What amazed residents and firefighters alike was that the powerful explosion, which rocked much of the town and was heard miles away, apparently caused only two minor injuries.
“We were very fortunate,” said Josie Williams, spokeswoman for Eastside Fire and Rescue. “If this had happened a couple of hours later there would definitely be more injuries and possibly loss of life.”
Residents noted that a school, park and recreational fields are near the blast site, as is a crosswalk that some students use to cross East North Bend Way.
For business owners such as Barry’s mother, Linda Sharon, the loss was personal.
“After 30 years, just about everyone in town has been in that shop at one time or another,” said Sharon, who started cutting hair there in the 1970s and purchased the business in 1983.
The charred hulk of the barber shop stood amid the debris Friday, its distinctive pilgrim’s-hat roof hinting at its earlier life as an XXX Root Beer drive-in.
Residents near the scene described two explosions and a wave of force that first pushed outward from the explosion site and then back toward it. Many of the destroyed windows blew out toward the blast site, rather than away from it.
A fire investigator would only say that explosions can have forces that push and then pull, but would not discuss the nature of this explosion.
Williams said a manager at the gas station on the west end of the explosion scene had arrived about 3:30 a.m. to open the business and he heard fire alarms going off in the area, shortly before the explosion.
The blast and fire closed a two-block section of North Bend Way, the east-west route through town.
At the Red Oak Residence, a senior home just east of the blast, windows were shattered in many of the 47 units, glass shards were strewn over the lawn and power was out until about noon.
“We were very fortunate, considering,” said administrative assistant Chuck Beatty. One resident was taken to a hospital to get stitches for a cut wrist. Another had a cut thumb and needed just a bandage.
“This is going to be a huge cleanup,” Beatty said. “A lot of stuff was knocked to the floor: mirrors, furniture, artwork. And they’re mixed in with broken glass so we have to be very careful.”
He said he wasn’t sure whether residents in all the units would be able to stay at the facility during the cleanup.
Andy Wappler, a spokesman for Puget Sound Energy, said the explosion knocked out electrical service to 1,500 homes and businesses, but within an hour, service was restored to all but 200 customers.
Utility crews, summoned by firefighters, cut off the gas line that served the area that was burning, Wappler said, for the safety of fire crews and residents.
At the time of the blast, Tony Marchetti and Kristin Sherron were asleep in their two-level apartment unit directly across the street. “We heard one big explosion and a second smaller one,” Sherron said.
Marchetti said, “The explosion woke me up and the whole building shook for a few seconds. I thought it was an earthquake at first.”
The blast damaged the exterior of their apartment, knocking loose panels outside their living room and a bathroom. Sherron said a sliding-glass door shattered, was bent off its frame and many items in the kitchen were knocked to the floor by the force of the blast.
“It felt like a wave came in and went out and I thought, ‘What the hell is this?’ It blew out my kitchen window and knocked pictures off my walls,” said Don Baunsgard, who lives in the same apartment complex.
Behind the charred hulk of the destroyed barber shop, sheets of plywood could be seen stuck in the limbs of evergreen trees some 20 feet off the ground.
Dave McDaniel, battalion chief with Eastside Fire and Rescue, said fire crews were unable to get to the burning structure immediately because of “the potential for a secondary explosion.” He said once utility workers cut off the gas line, fire crews were able to approach the structure.
McDaniel said he had been told that people had been working in the pizza parlor Thursday, possibly late into the night. But, “As best as we can put together, we don’t believe anyone was in the building” at the time of the explosion, he said.
Among those watching the work of fire crews was Michele Dunbar, co-owner of Kutters Hair & Nail Salon, which was destroyed. Dunbar was able to get into the building about midday Friday and recovered some documents, including her business license, soaked by the firefighting effort.
Asked what she would do now, Dunbar said, “Start over. What else can you do?” She said the owner of another local salon had already contacted her, offering space for Dunbar and her co-owner to serve their clients there.
Jack Broom: email@example.com or 206-464-2222