Buildings flattened. Businesses shattered. A neighborhood torn. Who's at fault?

Share story

The Greenwood natural-gas explosion rocked a neighborhood six months ago.

Nine firefighters were injured and three businesses were destroyed.

On Tuesday, the state released a report on the investigation into the March 9 blast, recommending up to $3.2 million in penalties against Puget Sound Energy.

How did we get here?

Early morning explosion

At 1:04 a.m. March 9, the Seattle Fire Department gets a call about a gas leak between two buildings, which house Mr. Gyros and Neptune Coffee. The 911 caller leads responding firefighters to the alleyway behind the buildings, and to a narrow space between them.

Firefighters including Nate Buck see gas “jetting” out of a threaded connection on a steel pipe, then under Greenwood Avenue to the east, according to the report released by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC).

The report includes Buck’s hand-drawn map of what he found before the explosion.

Firefighter Nate Buck’s map of the situation before the Greenwood explosion in March. (Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission)
Firefighter Nate Buck’s map of the situation before the Greenwood explosion in March. (Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission)

Here’s a detailed and clearer version, made by The Seattle Times using state records:

About 40 minutes later, gas that had accumulated under or inside the Mr. Gyros’ building ignites. The explosion is heard from blocks away, waking up neighborhood residents and triggering a massive response to the scene.

Larry Wells, 57, says he lived three blocks away when he hears “this huge explosion” and that his girlfriend “felt the building shake a little bit. She felt it rattle.”

Seattle firefighters at the explosion site on Greenwood Avenue North in March.  (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Seattle firefighters at the explosion site on Greenwood Avenue North in March. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Nine firefighters are taken to Harborview Medical Center with minor injuries. Lt. Edward Newell’s helmet is blown off, his hair is singed and he suffers a black eye. He says he heard a “deep, resonant woof” before he being hit by the shock wave.

Puget Sound Energy isn’t able to stop the leaking gas, which continues to blaze in the rubble, until five hours later.

Businesses vow to come back “better than ever”

The massive explosion levels three businesses, Mr. Gyros, Neptune Coffee and Quick Stop grocery. Dozens of other shops are affected. Windows are shattered. Streets are closed.

Residents are evacuated from an apartment building opposite the alleyway where the firefighters first saw the leak.

Tim Pipes, owner of The Angry Beaver, a bar across the street from the destroyed businesses, says  he has been inundated with encouragement and offers of help from all over the country. A window is broken in the blast, and portions of his ceiling collapses.

Pipes says he hopes to open his doors for business soon. “We’re not going down,” he said. “We’re coming back better than ever.”

The business only recently reopens on Greenwood Avenue.

The Van Zeyl family poses for a selfie at the site of the gas explosion in March in Greenwood.  Many gathered recently to celebrate the neighborhood’s recovery.  (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
The Van Zeyl family poses for a selfie at the site of the gas explosion in March in Greenwood. Many gathered recently to celebrate the neighborhood’s recovery. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Earlier this month, Pipes and other business owners and community members celebrate the area’s recovery. Mr. Gyros returns to Greenwood, running a food truck next to the empty lot at the explosion site.

“Businesses are more connected; customers are more invested,” Emilia Jones of the Phinney Neighborhood Association said of the blast’s aftermath. “It really made the neighborhood strong.”

Results of state investigation

State regulators interviewed firefighters at the scene and other witnesses. Some of those witnesses tell investigators they had used the small space between the two destroyed buildings to store personal belongings — and had often bumped or tripped over the steel pipe that sprung a leak, according to the report.

The state concludes the leak was likely caused by “human activity,” though is not able to determine whether the damage was intentional.

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission’s report includes photos of pieces of an abandoned Puget Sound Energy pipeline that the report said were not properly sealed. (Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission)
The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission’s report includes photos of pieces of an abandoned Puget Sound Energy pipeline that the report said were not properly sealed. (Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission)

The state has not let Puget Sound Energy off the hook.

Investigators found that employees of Pilchuck Contractors, a Kirkland company hired by PSE for pipeline maintenance, did not properly cut and cap the gas line in 2004, commission documents say.

Years before, Pilchuck was caught falsifying dozens of gas-leak inspection records in another case, according to a 2007 UTC investigation.

Pilchuck lost its contract with PSE in 2011, and that work accounted for up to 90 percent of Pilchuck’s business in some years, according to a statement made that year by the company’s president.

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission found 17 violations of safety regulations in the Greenwood case. If the violations are affirmed by the UTC’s three commissioners, the utility could face up to $3.2 million in penalties.

Jones, of the neighborhood association, said Tuesday she expects businesses affected by the blast to take some type of action. It’s unclear when or how that will take shape, she said.

Information from The Seattle Times archives was included in this report.