9 firefighters hurt as blast levels building in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood

A firefighter walks past the smoldering rubble left from an early morning explosion Wednesday, March 9, 2016, in Seattle. The explosion heavily damaged buildings and injured several firefighters. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

SEATTLE -- A natural gas explosion rocked a Seattle neighborhood early Wednesday, sending nine firefighters to the hospital and reducing businesses to rubble.

Crews were responding to reports of a natural gas leak when the explosion happened along the main thoroughfare of the city's Greenwood neighborhood, just north of downtown, Seattle Fire Department spokeswoman Corey Orvold said.

The blast occurred in the area of the Greenwood Quick Stop Market at N. 85th Street and Greenwood Avenue North. The business was destroyed by the force of the explosion.

Two other businesses, Neptune Coffee and Mr. Gyros, were leveled as well. Seattle Fire officials say damage is estimated at $3 million.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray later said a total of 36 businesses sustained various levels of damage from the explosion. During a news conference next to the rubble, Murray said the city will help the region rebuild.

One nearby business, G & O Family Cyclery, was heavily damaged.

"I arrived pretty soon after the massive fire trucks, and at that point, there were tons of flames leaping over what was already the rubble of Neptune coffee, which as you can see now totaled, gone," said bike shop owner Davey Oil. "We work pretty hard on our business and we really love the neighborhood. Our block is a pretty close-knit block and this is pretty terrible."

Chocolati Cafe was damaged in the blast but opened up to serve coffee to firefighters at the scene. Cafe manager Darla Weidman said she's relieved it happened overnight instead of 11 a.m. because they sometimes have a packed house.

Orvold said residents of an apartment building and another nearby residential structure were evacuated following the 1:45 a.m. blast.

There was no word of any other injuries or anyone missing. But Orvold said dogs were being used to go through the rubble just in case.

Harborview Medical Center spokeswoman Susan Gregg said eight firefighters and a battalion chief were treated at the facility.

She said all nine were treated and eventually released early Wednesday.

"We didn't have anybody with burns, nothing life-threatening, nothing major" said Gregg, adding that some firefighters were sent to the hospital to be checked out because the blast was so powerful it pushed them back.

Gregg said eight men and one woman were treated.

Neighbors say the blast sounded like everything from an earthquake, to an incredibly loud thunderclap, to a bomb blast.

One man who lives just 150 feet away says the house shook him right out of bed, and knew something was wrong.

"Scared the (expletive) out of me this morning," said Josh Coolbaugh. "Thought it was an earthquake, way too loud to be a gunshot. So I got out of bed, checked on the family, and my family's good. So I went outside and saw smoke."

He said he called business owners in the area he knows to wake them up and tell them what happened.

The Fire Department said nearly 70 fire personnel were on the scene, including firefighters, commanders and medics.

Crews worked to shut off natural gas in neighborhood. Puget Sound Energy spokeswoman Christina Donegan said a survey team will then move in.

Donegan said their focus will be to determine if there was an issue with gas to the building or something inside the building.

Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins says he is proud of the way his firefighters put themselves in the right position as they investigated reports of a gas leak. He says their training kept them from getting killed when the explosion happened.

Puget Sound Energy spokesman Andy Wappler says they're supporting the investigation. Seattle fire investigators confirmed Wednesday afternoon the cause of the blast was due to a natural gas explosion, but the ignition source has yet to be determined. Wappler says gas lines are inspected every three years, but he didn't know when the pipes in the area had last been inspected.

Meanwhile, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission investigation began Wednesday morning as inspectors started researching inspection records, maintenance logs and more.

"A lot more information will come to light," said UTC spokesperson Anna Gill.

UTC inspects and enforces state and federal law when it comes to pipeline safety. Questions were raised about why some valves appeared to be under roadways near the explosion and had to be excavated by jackhammer in the middle of the emergency.

"These can be used to shut down a large area in an event such as this to ensure the gas flow stops," Gill said.

UTC and PSE records should indicate if the six valves are emergency valves. If that is the case, UTC will be looking for required inspections every 15 months. Yet that raises concern about ripping up the roadway every year in order, and could slow down emergency response. Gill said they will see if that is the case in Greenwood.

"To determine whether or not the company followed all state and federal pipeline safety rules," she said.

A GoFundMe has been set up to help employees and businesses affected by the fire.

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