Fire After Gas Explosion Destroys Half Block of Commercial Buildings

Fire After Gas Explosion Destroys Half Block of Commercial Buildings

Urban renewal isn’t just for big cities. To revitalize two blocks of Main St., little Hartford, Wis. (pop. 6499) launched an $870,000 project which brought an unexpected result—the destruction by fire of commercial buildings occupying nearly half of one block.

Both the fire itself and some severe handicaps to fire fighters trying to extinguish it were directly caused by the reconstruction work.

The trouble started during the afternoon of last July 29. Between Sumner and Kossuth Sts. in Hartford, the paving had been torn out to prepare South Main St. for a new surface. The preparation ran deep because the street is a heavily traveled state highway.

Working from the best records the city had, a contractor was removing old utility piping from the street, including an abandoned central steam heat line. Sidewalks, too, had been removed, and replacements were being poured.

Shovel causes gas leak

Exactly what happened about 4 p.m. isn’t entirely clear. According to local sources, a 3/4-inch natural gas lateral placed several years ago to feed the one-story frame law office of Robert Russell at 23 S. Main had apparently been laid only 6 to 8 inches below the street (over the top of the steam piping) instead of the code-required 18 inches. Most gas lines in the area are 30 to 36 inches down.

When the contractor’s power shovel raised the steam pipe, the unnoticed gas lateral was crimped, then pulled loose from its connection to a 6-inch main. Gas at 25 psi was released into the ground. Whether or not they realized its source right away, the work crew could hear and smell gas and they notified authorities. At 4:04 p.m. the utility sent out a serviceman, who consulted the workers in the street.

Meanwhile, however, the gas was apparently seeping into the Russell building, which was unoccupied. The attorney had gone home because of the noise and the inconvenience of the street work outside. His secretary, luckily, was on vacation. Just as the serviceman was about to enter that building at 4:15 p.m., it exploded into a heap of flaming rubble.

Flames enter exposure

Fire spread at once through a boarded-over first floor window into the three-story brick Crandall Building across a narrow driveway to the south at 33 S. Main. Sandy’s Restaurant was on the first floor, an insurance agency in the basement, and apartments on the upper two floors.

Directly exposed to the north was a pair of old buildings joined one behind the other and occupied by Dean’s Radio & TV plus three other business firms, at 17-21 S. Main. There were four upstairs apartments.

When the blast occurred, Hartford’s volunteer Fire Chief Robert Baus was at his desk in the fire station three blocks away.

“It rattled all the overhead doors on the apparatus floor,” he said later. “We got the call at 4:16 and took out seven of our eight pieces of equipment, leaving only one tanker.

“As soon as I got to the intersection (Main and Sumner), and could see what we had, I called for help from Slinger and St. Lawrence.”

Minute after explosion, gas-fed flames cover front of law building.

Photos by Pete Litterski, Hartford, Wis., Times-Press

Bystanders help move hose lines, a task made difficult by construction rubble.

Like Hartford, both these small communities have volunteer fire departments. Slinger is 4 1/2 miles east and St. Lawrence about the same distance northeast. Each responded with an engine, a tanker, and about 15 men.

Main St. impassible

“Everybody here knew the location and that we couldn’t get through on Main St. because it was all torn up,” added Baus. “So our units lapped the block to get on both sides of it.”

Hartford equipment responding including three pumpers, a 75-foot aerial, a grass rig and tanker, each with mounted deluge sets, and a special equipment truck.

Said Baus, “We had 28 men in there right away. Eventually all but one of our 40 volunteers were at the fire. But the place was like a war zone—dirt piles and broken concrete all over. A lot of bystanders helped us drag lines.

“We couldn’t get our big rigs onto Main St. at all, especially the aerial, which we needed right there to sweep the fronts of the upper floors. The one tanker (1695) with the deck gun on it tried to get in, but right away sank into the sand up to the hubs and had to stay up at the corner.

People, first, then exposures

“Our first job was to get the people out. Then we had to work on exposures. Windows had gone out across the street, plastic signs were melting, and window awnings were starting to catch fire.’

Because the land slopes sharply down to the northwest throughout the block, the basements along Main St. became the first floor at mid-block. An open space led down from Kossuth St., dead-ending in the rear of the Russell premises. The first aerial ladder attack on the fire was from that depressed “hole” into which the rig was backed. But this position soon became dangerous. Smoke was extremely heavy. Furthermore, lack of window openings back there, plus the fire’s movement north away from the reach of the ladder pipe, made the aerial stream ineffective during the fire’s early stages. It was soon moved around to Sumner St.

Fire entered the front portion of the Dean property, a 2-story brick structure dating from the 1890s, through fanlights over a few second-floor windows in the south wall. Flames spread quickly into the more recently added section at the rear housing the Dean firm’s service shop and warehouse. This was actually 3 1/2 stories high in the back, with walls of concrete block and most windows sealed up.

Grass rig uses deck gun

Flames along the Main St. front were beaten back by hand lines plus a deluge set manned by Slinger fire fighters worked into Dean’s from the drugstore roof.

Other lines were taken to the roof of the auto dealership which took up the entire west side of the block. While these streams could penetrate only slightly into the back part of the Dean buildings, they did cut off any further spread of the fire with the aid of the aerial stream.

There was a new 10-inch water main under Main St., but water supply elsewhere was poor. One line to the aerial, plus several other streams, came from the St. Lawrence engine at Sumner and Johnson Sts.

Fire fighters direct stream into second floor, where fire spread in building 3.

About 20 minutes after the initial alarm, explained Baus, “our aerial stream got in trouble. St. Lawrence was working at zero inlet pressure. We had to have some backup. So I called Woodland (10 miles northwest) for another engine. We set them at the Rubicon River millpond, three blocks from the fire, pumping through 1000 feet of 4-inch hose to our portable hydrant. That device has four 2 1/2-inch outlets with individual pressure gages. Lines were transferred from St. Lawrence’s engine to the portable hydrant to relieve the demand on the mains.”

About 6 p.m., as fire took possession of the west end of the Dean buildings, smoke began pushing through cracks in the north wall concrete blocks. Within a minute after Baus ordered a St. Lawrence hose crew off the adjoining onestory bowling alley roof, the Dean wall collapsed onto that roof, allowing a cascade of water to flood the bowling lanes. Damage to the bowling alley totaled $135,000. Baus estimated total water usage of 2 million gallons.

It. was 9 o’clock before 90 fire fighters could bring the blaze under control. By midnight, the outside companies had been released.

Altogether, damage ran to at least $500,000. Flames gutted all but the first floors, which were heavily damaged by smoke and water, in buildings 2-3-4 (see map). Seven businesses were wiped out, and 17 tenants (many elderly) were displaced from seven apartments.

Three buildings demolished

The threat of further wall collapse soon led to demolition of three buildings. However, despite the blackened rubble and bare foundation walls lining part of Main St., the “revitalized” two blocks had their grand opening last Sept. 22, six months after the start of the project in March.

Three Hartford fire fighters and one from St. Lawrence were slightly injured or overcome during the fire. Three civilians including one construction worker and the gas serviceman also received minor injuries.

Fortunately, the street project had one happy effect: There was no auto traffic on the street, and only about 30 occupants were in the involved buildings, so that there was no serious injury or loss of life. Some stores had closed early because of the street noise.

“Anyone in the Russell building when it blew, or in the restaurant next door, would undoubtedly have been killed,” said one fire fighter.

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