SEATTLE (AP) — A powerful explosion tore through a Washington motel, critically injuring a gas company worker and knocking back firefighters just minutes after the manager evacuated the building because she could smell and hear a gas leak.
Two people were unaccounted for after the explosion, but no bodies were found in the debris, Bremerton Fire Chief Al Duke said Wednesday.
“They’re not here,” Duke said, adding he was almost certain the missing guests were not caught in the explosion. Cadaver dogs went through the building two or three times and found no evidence of bodies. Plus, investigators pinged the cellphones of the missing people, and they showed up “way south of the area,” Duke said.
He said the fast action of the Motel 6 manager and the people who listened to the fire alarm helped ensure the explosion Tuesday night was not a bigger tragedy.
About 10 people were staying in the 16 rooms that were destroyed, Duke said. More than 60 guests were staying at the hotel, but they may not have been in the building at the time of the blast.
“People have been there when you hear an alarm go off and you don’t do anything. We see that a lot,” Duke said. “The one time that you should have gotten out, and you didn’t, it might turn out bad.”
The blast on the west side of Puget Sound, across from Seattle, ripped off a 16-room section of the hotel that collapsed in a pile of rubble and burned for hours. Some firefighters at the scene were blown back 20 feet by the force, and others pulled smoldering debris from the building to help contain the fire, Bremerton Fire Capt. John Hawkins said at a Wednesday news conference.
“The management did a really good job of getting the alarm in right away and getting the evacuation started,” Police Chief Steve Strachan said.
Acting manager Tonya Hinds said in a telephone interview that a passer-by came into her office to say a gas line was leaking at the back of the building. Hinds — a former volunteer firefighter — said she went outside and saw that the leaking line was a big one “with a lot of gas.”
“I pulled the alarm and started corralling people away from the building,” Hinds said. “I wanted to make sure all my guests were out.”
The alarm came in just before 8 p.m., and the fire department and two Cascade Gas employees responded. The explosion came half an hour later, critically injuring one of the workers, who was flown to a Seattle hospital, Strachan said.
“Our prayers go out to his family. It could have been worse,” an emotional Duke said at a news conference Wednesday.
Two firefighters were injured in the blast, but both were home Wednesday and in good condition, Hawkins said. One firefighter suffered bruised ribs, and the other a concussion, Duke said.
Hinds said a guest reported seeing someone jump out a window and land on or near the gas line just before the leak. The three-story motel reopened last fall after an extensive remodel.
The investigation is expected to take weeks, with help from the National Transportation Safety Board, which regulates gas pipelines.