Businesses destroyed in Greenwood blast

SEATTLE — A massive natural gas explosion leveled a building, destroyed businesses and injured nine firefighters in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood.

Latest developments:
  • Photos from the scene
  • 9 firefighters have minor injuries
  • 3 businesses leveled in blast
  • As many as 36 businesses damaged
  • Windows blown out for 2 blocks
  • Nearby buildings evacuated
  • Explosion accidental, caused by gas leak
  • Gas leak capped, neighborhood safe

Seattle firefighters were called to a gas leak at a building in the area of Greenwood Avenue North and 85th Street shortly after 1 a.m. Wednesday.

Seattle fire investigators say the natural gas leak that caused a massive explosion on Greenwood Avenue North and 85th Street Wednesday morning was an accidental leak that began on the exterior of a building.

About 40 minutes after fire crews arrived, there was an explosion that was so strong, it blew out windows for two blocks and reduced the building where the gas leak originated to rubble.

The businesses that were in the building that was destroyed were Mr. Gyros, Neptune Coffee and Quick Stop grocery. Many other businesses were damaged.

At an afternoon news conference, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said as many as 36 businesses were damaged and that there would be extra police patrols to keep the area safe.

Murray called the explosion a "significant devastation of a neighborhood business district in Seattle."

First frantic call said firefighters were missing

Eight firefighters and one battalion chief were hurt in the blast. They were taken to Harborview Medical Center with cuts, abrasions and ringing ears.  All have since been discharged.

The first frantic distress call from a firefighter near the blast scene said firefighters were missing after the explosion.

"Dispatch ... mayday, mayday, I have firefighters missing," the firefighter said.

Witnesses said they saw firefighters with bloody faces emerge from the area of the blast.

Luckily, all firefighters were accounted for and none were badly injured.

Witnesses say scene was chaotic, like "war zone"

People as far away as Ballard say they heard a loud boom.

"Around 1:45, I thought there was an earthquake happening and woke up, but it was really short. It just shook my whole building," said resident Dylan Romero. "Neptune Coffee and Gyro shop had basically just been blown sky high. You can see the Chase Building, all the windows are blown out, and that's across the street. It just shook my whole building."

Derek May said he was inside the Angry Bear on the same block when the blast happened.

“That entirely block exploded. It knocked all five of us that were sitting there, off our bar stools. And we got off our bar stools and ran out back,” May said.

He believes that debris smashing into his car outside would have otherwise came right through the storefront, hitting them.

Nearby buildings have matching broken windows, as workers tried to board them up in the rain. Firefighters say no one has been reported as missing, but search dogs were brought in as a precaution to ensure there are no victims.

Firefighters put up plywood over broken windows and secured businesses that were damaged.  Heavy equipment has been brought in as the cleanup effort begins.

Did you capture video or audio of the Greenwood explosion? We'd like to see it, and may use the footage on KIRO 7 News. Follow this link to send us an e-mail.

Businesses in pieces 

Nearly every business in a three-block radius has broken windows.

Michael Arsheed, whose son owns Mr. Gyros, said he’s thankful this happened in the middle of the night, when no one was working or coming to the stores.

“It breaks my heart. I’m in tears all day. But I’m trying to hold myself. I’m trying to be the father my son’s expect me to be,” Arsheed said.

Mr. Gyros has two other locations in Ballard and Wallingford, but he said this Greenwood store was their first one – their ‘bread and butter.’

$3 million in damages  

Seattle Fire Investigators determined that the early morning explosion and resulting fire in Greenwood were accidental and caused by a natural gas leak on the exterior of the building.

Natural gas levels  accumulated in the interior of the building to the extent that they ignited. Investigators were not able to pinpoint the source of ignition inside the structure.

The total damage to the building is estimated at$3 million dollars.

Investigation in progress, streets closed

The gas service to the buildings impacted by the explosion was shut off at 2:48 a.m.  There was still one leak, and Puget Sound Energy crews had to cut into the street to shut down the valve.

"After that immediate shut down, we've been expanding a shutdown of the gas system in the block surrounding the damage site in order to shut down gas supply to the area. All six valves were shut down as of 7:28 a.m.," Puget Sound Energy said. 

Two leak surveys on the block were completed and no other leaks were found.  Survey crews double checked the neighborhood and said there was no ongoing danger.

The state Utilities and Transportation Commission is now investigating what caused the gas leak and what led to its ignition, as well as what party might possibly be responsible.

Pipes are inspected every three years, and Anna Gill, spokesperson for the UTC, said the ones in the area of the explosion were last inspected in July of 2015.

“No major violations,” she said.

“Nothing that would suggest a possible leak down the road?” KIRO 7 asked.

“Nothing that has concerns of public safety,” she said.

KIRO 7 also discovered a valve was paved over, but the UTC still has to determine why and whether there are violations.

Still, Gill said the pipes in the area are safer than they were just a few years ago.

“I do know that they are steel pipes and plastic lines that run into the meters,” Gill said. “In fact, the commission ordered PSE to remove their older pipes. Bare steel used to be in the ground here.”

“My mom was like, Jesus, that's what happened? Just from --- it took out three businesses and we have a gas line like that at my house,” neighbor Stevie Fellows said.

Fellows said the explosion shook his family’s home and shattered one of their windows. He said his mother immediately thought of their own gas line.

“Something like this can happen easily if anything ignites it,” he said.

The consequences of a gas leak can be tragic, as the city of Seattle saw in September of 2011. A house exploded after a natural gas leak in the Pinehurst neighborhood North Seattle, burning the couple inside.

The UTC later fined Puget Sound Energy $275,000 after finding the explosion was most likely caused by a gas leak from a PSE service pipe outside the home.

PSE spokesperson Andy Wappler said PSE customers can always call if they want their lines checked.

“Our crews will come out 24 hours a day to inspect and see what's happening and reassure that person about what's safe or give them instructions on what to do if it's not,” he said.

Wappler said they would be looking at their system, offering information to UTC investigators about maintenance, the age of the system and any other background context needed for the investigation.

The Seattle Department of Transportation has put up detour signs in the area and said traffic on 85th would be moving again once buildings are shored up and secured. There was no estimate as to when that work would be complete.

About 70 Seattle firefighters responded to the explosion.  Firefighters remained at the scene throughout the day to watch for fires.