Fire investigators give more details on explosion, fire at M’s Pub

By Christopher Burbach and Andrew J. Nelson

The evidence unearthed by Omaha Fire Department investigators looking into the M’s Pub fire clearly confirmed for them what everyone suspected.

Battalion Chief Doug Krysl said Friday that they found holes drilled through the dirt on both sides of the natural gas service line into the building. They found a hole torn though the top of that gas line.

The hole in the gas pipe lined up with the holes drilled through the dirt.

And the holes in the dirt lined up with a Ditch Witch excavating machine that a contractor was using to bore beneath M’s Pub sidewalk from 11th and Howard Streets to a ditch dug at the alley north of the buildings, Krysl said.

“At which time, it’s my understanding they put on a bigger bore head (and) were boring back in for their conduit, and that’s when the gas line was hit,” he said.

The Fire Department ruled the blaze an accident, caused when crews boring horizontally under the sidewalk struck a gas line that was the main gas feed to the building.

Krysl and Assistant Fire Chief Dan Olsen said the investigation included numerous interviews of witnesses and other documentation at the scene.

Omaha Fire Chief Bernard Kanger had said earlier that fire investigators were interviewing workers from the excavation subcontractor, Minnesota-based North Central Service, and that they were cooperating.

Questions remain, including why nobody called to report a gas odor before the explosion.

Olsen said it took only a “very short time” for the gas leak to lead to an explosion, although officials didn’t detail Friday how short that time was.

A World-Herald review of Douglas County 911 records showed that the first call reporting a gas odor came 39 seconds after 2:50 p.m., after the explosion and fire had already been reported by other callers.

The caller who mentioned the gas smell also reported the explosion. That was from Beckie Keating-Lefler, who with her husband, Steve, lives in the adjoining condominium building.

The first call to 911 had come seconds earlier from a North Central Service worker’s phone. That caller said there had been an explosion and that “we hit a natural gas line.”

The records show that a Douglas County 911 operator called to alert MUD just before 2:52 p.m., even as a dispatcher was sending the first fire crews to the scene.

“They said something exploded, so I thought I’d give you a heads up,” the operator told MUD.

She called MUD again at 2:55 p.m., asking them to expedite to the scene “because there’s a very large odor of gas and an explosion that was likely caused by gas.”

On Friday, Krysl and Olsen declined to answer questions about the gas service or details of the drilling process, saying those things were beyond their expertise.

Olsen said that Omaha works with MUD and other agencies at fire scenes.

“We appreciate their service, the fact that they’re in the trenches with us in very adverse and sometimes unattainable conditions,” he said.

The investigators don’t know yet how gas leaked into the building, or how it ignited. Olsen said they hope to enter the basement in search of answers, although fire officials acknowledged that the condition of the building might prevent that. He said there were “several potential ignition sources” there.

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