PORTLAND, Ore. – A powerful natural gas explosion rocked a busy Portland, Oregon, shopping district Wednesday, injuring eight people and igniting a fire that sent a huge plume of smoke over the heart of the city.
Three firefighters, two police officers and three civilians were hurt, and one of the firefighters had surgery for a broken leg, authorities said.
None of the injuries appeared to be life-threatening.
City officials said a catastrophe was averted by speedy work from firefighters and police who cleared the area of people before the blast.
“There are a lot of people alive” who might not be “but for the excellent work by our first-responders,” Mayor Charlie Hales said at an afternoon news conference.
A building that housed a bagel shop and a beauty salon in the popular NW 23rd Street shopping district was reduced to rubble, and its smouldering roof was splayed across the road.
The windows of a nearby building were blown out and debris was everywhere. Firefighters swarmed the scene and dumped water from ladder trucks onto the smoking wreckage.
NW Natural released a timeline saying the explosion occurred at 9:38 a.m. — a time when many businesses were still closed — and first-responders had warning about the gas leak.
Portland’s NW 23rd Street — nicknamed “Trendy Third” — is packed with boutiques, bars and restaurants. Many are on street level with pricey apartments on the upper levels and a day care facility in the vicinity.
The utility said it got a call at 8:55 a.m. saying a construction crew had hit a gas line. Authorities and utility workers responded in 15 minutes and evacuated the building, NW Natural said in its statement.
People in the neighbourhood reported smelling gas as they were evacuated and later felt the explosion.
The utility hasn’t determined what caused the gas to ignite.
An employee at a nearby kitchen accessories store said he was in the washroom when he felt a huge explosion and emerged to find thick smoke and haze. Scott Bergler said 15 windows in the first-floor store were blown out.
As he evacuated the Kitchen Kaboodle shop, Bergler saw a firefighter on the ground who had been knocked flat by the blast.
“He was obviously in shock and crawling and having a hard time standing up,” said Bergler, who remained shaken by the ordeal as he gathered with co-workers in a parking lot.
Nicole Christiansen climbed exterior stairs to a rooftop of a nearby building so her 2-year-old son, Theo, could see everyone was safe.
The child had been evacuated from his day care centre just before the blast, but he heard the explosion and was scared, she said. He looked on with wide eyes and clutched a crumpled napkin from an unfinished snack as firefighters poured water on the building.
“I saw the smoke from way down the hill, and I realized he was impacted,” she said. “He has to go home.”
Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/gflaccus .