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Gas explosion destroys building in Portland, Oregon; 8 injured

Firefighters battle flames after a gas explosion in Portland, Oregon, on Oct. 19, 2106.


Last Updated Oct 19, 2016 8:43 PM EDT

PORTLAND, Ore. - A powerful natural gas explosion rocked a busy Portland, Oregon, shopping district Wednesday, injuring eight people and igniting a fire that sent a huge plume of smoke over the heart of the city. 

Three firefighters, two police officers and three civilians were hurt, and one of the firefighters had surgery for a broken leg, authorities said.

None of the injuries appeared to be life-threatening.

City officials said a catastrophe was averted by speedy work from firefighters and police who cleared the area of people before the blast.

“There are a lot of people alive” who might not be “but for the excellent work by our first-responders,” Mayor Charlie Hales said at an afternoon news conference. 

A multi-story building owned by the Dosha Salon Spa was heavily damaged from what fire officials called a “significant explosion,” reports CBS Portland affiliate KOIN

Kimberly Johnson, the COO of Dosha Salon Spa, told KOIN that the salon was evacuated before the explosion happened, and all of her employees were safe.

“I’ve been a firefighter for 28 years and I have not seen devastation like this,” PF&R Chief Mike Myers said. “If it wasn’t for the efforts of a few firefighters today, and a very special leader in our organization who made some very serious and very important decisions, I’m afraid we’d be having a different discussion.”

The windows of a nearby building were blown out and debris was everywhere. Firefighters swarmed the scene and dumped water from ladder trucks onto the smoking wreckage.

NW Natural released a timeline saying the explosion occurred at 9:38 a.m. - a time when many businesses were still closed - and first-responders had warning about the gas leak.

Portland’s NW 23rd Street - nicknamed “Trendy Third” - is packed with boutiques, bars and restaurants. Many are on street level with pricey apartments on the upper levels and a day care facility in the vicinity.

The utility said it got a call at 8:55 a.m. saying a construction crew had hit a gas line. Authorities and utility workers responded in 15 minutes and evacuated the building, NW Natural said in its statement.

People in the neighborhood reported smelling gas as they were evacuated and later felt the explosion.

The utility hasn’t determined what caused the gas to ignite.

An employee at a nearby kitchen accessories store said he was in the washroom when he felt a huge explosion and emerged to find thick smoke and haze. Scott Bergler said 15 windows in the first-floor store were blown out.

As he evacuated the Kitchen Kaboodle shop, Bergler saw a firefighter on the ground who had been knocked flat by the blast.

“He was obviously in shock and crawling and having a hard time standing up,” said Bergler, who remained shaken by the ordeal as he gathered with co-workers in a parking lot.

Nicole Christiansen climbed exterior stairs to a rooftop of a nearby building so her 2-year-old son, Theo, could see everyone was safe.

The child had been evacuated from his day care center just before the blast, but he heard the explosion and was scared, she said. He looked on with wide eyes and clutched a crumpled napkin from an unfinished snack as firefighters poured water on the building.

“I saw the smoke from way down the hill, and I realized he was impacted,” she said. “He has to go home.”