Gas leak eyed in Pueblo explosion |

Gas leak eyed in Pueblo explosion

Catherine Tsai
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
Firefighters search through the rubble of a restaurant that collapsed after an explosion in the old town part of Pueblo, Colo., on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2008. Crews from neighboring cities were called in to help in the search of the structure. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

PUEBLO, Colo. ” Authorities were trying to determine Friday whether a natural gas leak caused an explosion that leveled a restaurant and a shop, killing one person, injuring at least seven and forcing several downtown blocks to evacuate.

A gas leak was found in the street next to the restaurant but it wasn’t clear whether the pipe was ruptured by the explosion or contributed to it, fire department spokesman Woody Percival said.

The break was in a main gas line about 20 feet from the point where a feeder line runs to the building that exploded, he said.

At least one witness reported smelling gas after the blast Thursday, but Percival said it was possible she smelled that gas leak or another one caused by the powerful explosion.

Authorities haven’t been able to inspect the restaurant’s gas line or meter because the rubble is too unstable, Percival said.

The search for other potential victims was called off because no one has been reported missing.

Authorities did not know whether the restaurant was open when the blast occurred around 2:30 p.m. Thursday or how many people were inside. Crews pulled a survivor from the rubble more than four hours later. Fire Chief Chris Riley said the man was conscious and talking.

A total of seven people, including the one who died, were transported to the hospital. An eighth person went unassisted later, said Percival, who didn’t know the conditions of the patients.

The person who died was one of two women rescued from a shop next to the Branch Inn restaurant, Riley said. Her identity was not released.

Smoke still rose from the rubble hours after the explosion. Glass block, bricks and other debris were strewn more than 100 feet from the restaurant. The third-floor windows of an apartment across the street were blown out.

The Branch Inn sign lay on its side in the street, and an odor of burnt plastic filled the air. The blast blew the restaurant’s front door into an intersection, where a hinge lodged in the fender of a sport utility vehicle waiting at a stop sign.

The SUV driver, 35-year-old Christine Guerin, said she was looking for a business when she heard an explosion and saw glass flying toward her.

“You couldn’t even see the building. It was just smoke, black smoke,” she said, adding that she could hear a hissing noise and smell gas after she got out of her car.

Local, state and federal investigators met Friday to determine how to proceed.

Percival said the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is involved because of its expertise in investigating large explosions, not because foul play is suspected.

But Percival said nothing has been ruled out, and investigators will carefully search through the rubble for evidence of broken gas pipes, bombs, propane bottles or anything else that could have triggered the explosion.

“It’s going to be painfully slow, I’m afraid,” Percival said.

Pueblo, a city of about 106,000, is 100 miles south of Denver.

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