The scope of damage caused by a massive gas explosion Monday in Dubuque came into clearer focus Tuesday.
The blast that leveled the residence at 459 Loras Blvd. left more than a dozen nearby structures at least temporarily uninhabitable, city officials said.
Though residents will be contacted in the next couple of days regarding when they can pick up personal items, city public information officer Randy Gehl said 16 buildings had been “condemned” as of 4 p.m. Tuesday.
“They will need to be repaired before they can be lived in or occupied again,” he said.
Officials said more than 50 people were displaced as a result — a figure that ballooned from the Monday night estimate of at least 30 people.
Meanwhile, traffic camera footage obtained by the Telegraph Herald shows at least 12 people on Loras Boulevard in the vicinity of the explosion site when it occurred.
They include two men who walked down the sidewalk toward Bluff Street on the opposite side of the street of the blast less than 10 seconds before it occurred.
Remarkably, no serious injuries have been reported.
SEQUENCE OF EVENTS
The explosion occurred at about 5:40 p.m. Monday night, and officials still are sorting out just what happened.
“It’s still under investigation,” said Fire Chief Rick Steines on Tuesday afternoon. “We still don’t know the exact ignition point.”
Both the state fire marshal and the Dubuque fire marshal are assisting in the investigation, he said.
The explosion came about an hour and a half after Dubuque firefighters were dispatched to the area after Price Electric company struck a gas main while drilling in the area, Steines said.
The leaking gas main was located next to the curb in front of 459 Loras Blvd., Steines said.
Firefighters, police and Black Hills Energy officials were in the area as crews worked to address the leak. That stretch of the block was closed due to the leak, and the home at 459 Loras and several others had been evacuated.
The traffic camera footage shows Black Hills crews digging both a few houses up and a few houses down from 459 Loras when the explosion occurs.
A firefighter was injured when he was struck by glass debris.
On Tuesday night, Black Hills released another statement about the incident. It said “some team members were evaluated for possible injury” and that one company vehicle was damaged in the blast.
“A thorough investigation is being conducted, and Black Hills Energy is working with natural gas experts and all appropriate agencies to determine the cause of this tragedy,” it stated.
The release notes that 37 Black Hills customers were without service as “experts assess each structure in the area to determine if gas service can be turned on.”
Rental company GRTD Investments owns the property that was leveled. GRTD Investments owner Dennis Buchheit emphasized his appreciation for the “heroes” that responded to the scene.
“Clearly, this was a tragic incident that damaged many properties,” he said. “The utmost thing that truly matters is that everyone got out of the house.”
AN ‘EXHAUSTING COUPLE OF DAYS’ AHEAD
Residents who were displaced from the explosion were directed to Jackson Park for assistance from the Red Cross on Monday night.
“Some had family and friends they were able to go stay with, but 38 people were put into hotels,” said Dubuque Housing and Community Development Director Alexis Steger.
Residents will not be allowed back into their homes until property owners can secure their buildings, many of which had windows blown out.
Loras Boulevard will remain closed from Dell to Bluff streets until that occurs, likely through today at the least.
“We want to secure the buildings before we have foot and car traffic coming through here,” he said.
Steger said city officials investigated surrounding residences to make sure they were structurally sound throughout Tuesday morning. The most extensive damage found was done to windows, she said, but some properties closer to the explosion site had added pressure that caused the drywall to crack.
Owners have 48 hours to secure their buildings, Steger said.
“It’s going to be an exhausting couple of days,” she said.
Aubrianna Birch lives in an apartment near the corner of Loras Boulevard and Bluff Street, about three houses down from the explosion.
She said she returned to her apartment late Monday afternoon. At the time, the gas leak had been detected, and emergency responders were on the scene, but Birch was told it was safe to return to her apartment.
About one hour later, the explosion occurred.
“It was deafening and terrifying,” Birch recalled. “I have never heard anything like that before.”
She ran outside to assess the damage and encountered a chilling scene.
“When I looked up, all I could see was fire,” she said. “There was a woman running down the street carrying her kids and begging for help.”
Soon after the explosion, a firefighter came to Birch’s residence and ordered her to leave immediately. In the chaos of the moment, she left behind her laptop, notes and other items needed for her classes at University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
Birch said she is staying at a nearby residence that is usually utilized as a vacation rental unit, an arrangement coordinated by her landlord. She is unsure if or when she will be allowed to re-inhabit her residence.
“I don’t think anyone really knows what will happen going forward,” she said.
Senior reporter Jeff Montgomery contributed to this story.