ST. CLOUD, Minn. — December 1998 was unseasonably mild.
That meant crews installing fiber-optic cable in St. Cloud were able to work longer into the season because the ground wasn't yet frozen.
So when a crew installing a utility pole anchor on the south side of First Street North in downtown St. Cloud on Dec. 11, 1998 encountered a problem, it wasn't frozen dirt.
It was a large granite slab hidden under the sidewalk. When the anchor hit that slab 20 years ago, it bent and its tip ruptured a gas pipeline.
St. Cloud would never be the same.
The crew immediately noticed dirt blowing out of the hole in the sidewalk and began to smell gas.
The crew's foreman called his supervisor and the crew blocked off the area. But the utility company and fire department were not immediately notified so they did not arrive as quickly as they could have.
Meanwhile, the gas seeped through the crumbling foundation of Bellantti's Pizza — kitty-corner from Howie's Sports Bar & Grill — and into the basement, where it reached an ignition source, possibly a gas water heater.
About 40 minutes after the granite slab was struck, the Bellantti's Pizza building exploded.
Four people died. A woman who was trapped in the rubble was seriously injured. Ten others, including two firefighters and one police officer, received minor injuries.
Six buildings — Bellantti's Pizza & Deli, Book Em's Bar, L. Michael Hall Law office, Tom's Bar and Bartsh Bail Bonds — were destroyed, and property losses were estimated to be nearly $400,000, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
All were just south of First Street North, between Ninth Avenue North and Courthouse Square.
Today, the area is a parking lot.
"Seeing all that rubble and a hole — and to know about the loss of life, it was just really a shock to see that right in the heart of our downtown," Mayor Dave Kleis, who was a state legislator at the time, told the St. Cloud Times . "It was very surreal."
The explosion had local and national implications. It spurred creation of a city ordinance that was one of the first in the nation to address safety related to cable installation.
The explosion also led the way for a new Minnesota law that required 911 be called immediately whenever gas lines are ruptured, as well as an allocation of state money to expand the emergency response communication lines.
The installation of new fiber-optic communication systems in downtown St. Cloud in December 1998 was not unique to the city or state.
"There was growing competition at the time in the communication world," said Larry Meyer, who was mayor at the time of the explosion. "At one time, everything was basically monopolized from the telephone company and cable company.
"It was more expensive and very controlled, and the federal government had brought a series of rulings against cities that they had to be more open in how (they) allow people to lay communication lines," Meyer added.
In October 1998, the city awarded Seren Innovations Inc. the city's second cable franchise, according to a Times story from Dec. 13, 1998. Seren was a subsidiary of Northern States Power Co., which became Xcel Energy after a corporate merger. Seren hired Sirti Ltd. to provide engineering work and Cable Constructors Inc. to perform the construction work.
Before beginning the installation on Friday, Dec. 11, 1998, a crew measured the distance from the planned anchor site to the marked location of an NSP gas pipeline that served Book Em's Bar, according to the NTSB's accident report.
State law would have required the crew to expose the utility line before proceeding if the distance was less than 24 inches.
The crew used a jackhammer to break a 9-inch hole in the sidewalk and a gasoline-powered auger to install the 66-inch anchor.
Before the anchor had bored 2 feet, it hit something hard. The crew thought it was a rock. Later, it was determined to be a granite slab about 18 inches wide, 90 inches long and 8 inches thick.
The crew removed the auger and struck the top of the anchor with a sledgehammer. They then continued to screw in the anchor, which appeared to proceed normally but had actually bent. When the bent tip dropped off the end of the slab, it struck the pipeline.
The crew immediately smelled gas and knew a line had ruptured. The foreman called the CCI project manager about 10:51 a.m., who went over the company's utility strike procedures.
The procedure stated that if a gas line is hit, crews should contact the utility and restrict access to the area. It did not advise supervisors to call 911.
The CCI project manager then called a Sirti safety coordinator, who advised him to call NSP — which was not done until about 11:21 a.m., according to phone records.
"After the CCI crew had placed cones and strung orange tape across First Street North where it adjoined Ninth Avenue North, the crew waited for the emergency responders (who, in fact, had not yet been called)," the report states.
The authorities were notified at 11:05 a.m. — after a receptionist for the Stearns County Administration building received complaints about the strong smell of gas outside. The receptionist alerted the building facilities director, who went outside to investigate.
The facilities director asked the CCI crew if they had damaged a gas line. They had. He asked if they had called the fire department. They had not.
The director called the Stearns County deputy sheriff, who alerted the sheriff's department dispatcher, who then called the St. Cloud Fire Department. The fire department dispatcher then notified the NSP dispatcher of the leak.
Firefighters arrived at 11:08 a.m. and began testing the area using a hazardous and combustible gas monitor.
To ensure accurate readings, the monitor is meant to be turned on in fresh air, after which it completes a self-test and start-up sequence, according to the NTSB. But firefighters did not complete the calibration because the explosion site was only about a block away from the station.
At 11:16 a.m., two NSP workers arrived. One of the NSP employees, a technician, went into Book Em's Bar and took gas readings. He then left the bar to look for an entrance to the basement of the adjacent building, which housed Bellantti's Pizza & Deli.
The gas collected in the basement — its walls made of stacked stones and crumbling mortar — ignited at about 11:30 a.m.
"I was sitting in my office when the explosion happened," said Mike Holman, St. Cloud fire chief at the time.
Holman was meeting with the assistant chief and could see the firefighters at the scene of the gas leak from his window.
"We were talking and the explosion came in and the windows almost just did a wave," Holman said. "They didn't blow out but we knew right away what had happened because (firefighters) were over there."
Other officials were less certain about what happened.
"I was at City Hall. We were in a meeting and ... I thought the explosion had taken place inside the building," said Meyer, who was mayor from 1997-2001. Meyer now lives in Ave Maria, Florida. The confusion caused a sudden spike in use on the telephone system and many calls couldn't get through.
"In the interim it was just chaos because in just a couple of minutes, we weren't even able to communicate with each other," Meyer said. "It's hard to describe the scene because it was total confusion for so many minutes. It took an extended period of time to figure out what had happened, not being able to reach the people we needed to reach."
Chuck Winkelman, who was mayor from 1989-1997, happened to be downtown at the Paramount Theatre, about a block away from the explosion. Winkelman still lives in St. Cloud.
"The noise was very loud. It was very dramatic," Winkelman said. "There were pieces of material that landed at the back door of the Paramount. It was just that powerful.
"It was really a very scary situation and, of course, people were hurt."
NSP workers Robert J. Jacobs and Karl Klang were killed instantly, as was Carolyn Sandquist, a post office employee who was on her lunch break.
A few hours later, firefighters found the body of Delbert Rose in the basement of the collapsed building, debris burying his body. Rose had lived in one of the four apartments above the restaurant.
The cause of death in each case was multiple traumatic injuries due to the explosion.
Four people were alive but trapped inside the L. Michael Hall Law Office, just south of Bellantti's Pizza on Ninth Avenue North. Three were rescued, unhurt, within 20 minutes because that part of the building didn't collapse. A half-hour later, firefighters freed Jacqueline Ploof.
A Times story from Dec. 14, 1998 states Ploof was buried under brick, steel and wood and firefighters lined up to move rubble "brick by brick, file by file, drawer by drawer" after hearing a faint voice.
Firefighter Dave Childers told the Times, "I knew I was within 5 feet of her, and I pulled back a brick and I saw a hand and squeezed it. And it squeezed back."
Holman remembers the rescue as a well-coordinated effort.
"You really find out how the training pays off. You train, train, train and then when something like that happens — that once-in-a-career-type-thing — it works really well," he said during an interview in late November. "It was a great operation as far as the rescue went. It was something you don't want to happen, of course."
Holman was near the end of his career in 1998. He retired in 2003 and still lives in St. Cloud.
"The thing that stands out is — on a personal level — I was on duty for approximately 11 days straight," he said. "You just go through the motions at the time and then later, you do revisit it and think about what it all involved. It's something that will stay with you the rest of your life."
It didn't take long for state officials and national media to swoop into town. Gov. Arne Carlson visited the scene that afternoon.
"We had to worry about him getting run over by equipment," Holman said. "I think one time, someone pulled him out of the way because we had heavy equipment there to help move some of the debris."
The case had nationwide implications because installing fiber-optic cables for internet, cable and telephone services was underway throughout the country. And with the increase in digging underground rights-of-way, an increase in accidents and gas leaks followed.
The Dec. 12, 1998 edition of the Times featured a story titled, "Explosive situations on the rise nationwide" that stated, "accidents have occurred frequently enough nationwide that some utilities are experimenting with a new way of burying lines together to avoid confusion and fatal accidents."
A Dec. 15 story stated the St. Cloud explosion was the 30th nationwide that year, raising the death toll to six and the number injured to 30.
Even St. Cloud and Waite Park had seen an increase in gas lines being punctured with increased underground work.
"It wasn't just once," Meyer said. "That was a horrible experience all by itself, but it happened repeatedly, even in other non-congested areas in the city as they were ... laying cable."
As mayor, Meyer was interviewed by national news sources.
"I once said in a story in the Times," Meyer reflected, "everybody gets their 15 minutes of fame sometime in their life and unfortunately, that was mine."
The NTSB's accident report, released in July 2000, pointed to a series of mistakes by the contractor and local firefighters.
It determined the probable cause of the accident was the lack of adequate procedures by Cable Contractors Inc. to prevent damage to nearby utilities when its anchor installation crews encounter unusual conditions such as striking an underground obstacle. Also contributing to the severity of the accident was the delay by CCI in notifying the proper authorities.
"Because of the delay in notifying the gas company and emergency response personnel, about 18 minutes elapsed from the time the pipeline was ruptured until the first firefighters arrived (about 21 minutes before the explosion). About 26 minutes after the rupture (about 13 minutes before the explosion), gas company personnel arrived," the report states.
"The Safety Board concludes that had the crew foreman or his supervisor called 911 or the utility owner immediately after the rupture, emergency responders and NSP personnel may have had time to fully assess the risk and to take actions that could have helped to prevent the explosion or to avoid the resulting loss of life."
The report also stated the improperly calibrated machine prevented firefighters from detecting gas. It states the firefighters should have checked nearby buildings to see if natural gas was accumulating.
Another contributing factor was the pipeline not having a valve that could have shut off the gas automatically after the rupture.
As a result of the explosion and following investigation, the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited CCI for not having a written plan to avoid damage to gas lines.
St. Cloud Fire Department also developed operating guidelines for responding to natural gas emergencies.
Additionally, a state law adopted in 1999 required 911 be called immediately when gas lines are ruptured. In 2002, the Legislature funded an expansion of a shared radio communication system that would use 800-megahertz frequency radio to ensure first responders can communicate with one another.
Kleis, who became mayor in 2005, said that incident was clearly a catalyst for how the state looked at emergency communications.
"St. Cloud was a leader in that effort in that time, and after," Kleis said.
The city also adopted a right-of-way management ordinance and hired a specialist to manage the ordinance.
"We developed a set of regulations that set parameters on what had to be done when all of this drilling underground was done to lay cable," Meyer said. "It became a model that other cities used across the country to try to avoid those types of situations."
Several blocks were shut down after the explosion and several buildings along St. Germain Street had shattered windows. The damage or lack of electricity also canceled Christmas shows at downtown theaters.
Razed after the explosion were Bartsch Bail Bonds, Book-Ems Bar, Tom's Bar and two buildings that housed the Hall law firm. The initial blast destroyed Bellantti's.
Damaged buildings included Stearns County Courts Facility, Taco John's, Stearns County Abstract, Geramin Towers and Howie's Sports Bar.
Demolition crews started leveling the first of the damaged buildings the following Monday, spraying the rubble with a mixture of windshield washer fluid and water to minimize asbestos contamination.
"Asbestos as small as a nickel and as large as a sheet of paper has been found at the sites," states the Dec. 22 edition of the Times.
About 20 people were in Howie's Bar when Bellantti's exploded. Owner Howie Zimmer said his staff hustled them out the back door as fast as they could. Some patrons suffered minor injuries, but the building got hit hard.
"It was the upper structure that really got shook hard," Zimmer said. "There were whiskey bottles thrown all over. We had boxes upstairs; those boxes were completely flipped upside down."
The City Council declared Howie's a hazardous structure. The city's condemnation order stated the building's walls were out of plumb and the roof was sagging. The city wanted the building stabilized or torn down so streets could reopen. An insurer disputed the condemnation of the bar.
Zimmer, owner of the bar, said the condemnation order surprised him at first.
"It was kind of a weird deal because I was housing the sheriff's department," he said. "We were basically like a station, where we had doughnut and cookies and coffee while people were doing their investigations. That went on for about three days. And the next thing I knew, I had a red tag on my building as it being unsafe or non-inhabitable and we were not allowed to re-enter."
Zimmer said he let the city and insurance companies battle it out.
"The insurance company came in with engineers and contractors and they said, absolutely not — this building can be put back together. There's damage, yes, but the damage can be corrected. That fight went on for a bit of a time," he said.
His bar was closed for nearly six months. When it reopened, it took a while to rebuild the customer base because they had found other places to go, Zimmer said.
After the buildings were razed, the land sat vacant for years.
St. Cloud's Housing & Redevelopment Authority had hoped to develop it, but a Minneapolis company's plans for an office building on the site fell through.
In 2007, Stearns County purchased the site for $400,000. The county planned to use it for parking — which is its use today — and said it could be used in the future for more courtroom space.
Settlements were reached in six cases — including three wrongful death lawsuits — just days before the cases were set to go to trial. The lawsuits named NSP, Seren Innovations, CCI and Sirti Limited as defendants.
Details of the settlements, which were reached in 2004, were confidential.
One year after the explosion, a memorial was held at 11:30 a.m. at the site. On the fifth and 10th anniversaries, space at the site was cordoned off for people to leave memorials.
There has been talk of making a permanent memorial, but nothing has materialized.
Looking back, Holman and Meyer remember the lasting legacy the explosion had on the downtown, the city and the lives of locals.
"There was a lot of sadness just because of the people who died that didn't need to, and looking at what we could have done differently," Meyer said.
An AP Member Exchange shared by the St. Cloud Times.