Lt. Edward Newell’s helmet was blown off, his hair was singed and he suffered a black eye in the explosion in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood.

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Lt. Edward Newell thought it was another “typical” natural-gas call.

Someone had called 911 around 1 a.m. Wednesday to report smelling gas in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood. Seattle firefighters frequently answer such calls, so often they have specific protocols in place, Newell said.

Newell and eight other firefighters responded to the reported area of the leak, near Greenwood Avenue North and North 85th Street, and began a search for the source. They ultimately found the leak near a gas meter in an alley.

How to help

The Phinney Neighborhood Association’s website,, has a list of merchants that are collecting money to help the businesses impacted by the blast.

A gofundme page has also been set up for donations.

G&O Family Cyclery has its own gofundme page.

They called dispatch and waited for Puget Sound Energy.

Tim Pipes, owner of the Angry Beaver, was sitting in his Greenwood bar after closing when an explosion flattened buildings across the street. He says he is lucky to be alive. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

Firefighters don’t turn off the gas themselvesbecause the gas lines are “sectionalized” and Puget Sound Energy (PSE) employees are “the experts on that,” Newell explained Thursday.

He walked to the front of the building and noticed a light on inside Neptune Coffee, one of several businesses fronting Greenwood Avenue North. Noting the light could ignite natural gas, Newell thought, “We’re going to have to ventilate the building” and clear out any gas that may have built up inside the closed coffee shop.

That’s when he heard a “deep, kind of resonant woof and then a sucking sound and then a deep, resonant boom.” In an instant, the building disintegrated amid a huge explosion, burst into flames and rained debris onto the firefighters and over a wide area.

Newell and the other eight firefighters were fortunate. The blast destroyed Neptune Coffee and two other businesses, but the first responders’ injuries were minor.

Newell’s helmet was blown off by the force. His hair was burned and he suffered a black eye.

“It’s always kind of surreal when you’re at these kind of circumstances,” said the 33-year veteran of the Seattle department.

Newell believes he and the other firefighters were in “the right place at the right time” and “that the good Lord was watching out for us.”

As Newell spoke with the media, rubble from the natural-gas explosion that leveled three business in the heart of Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood was nearby, spilling out into the street.

Business owners, helped by scores of volunteers who poured into the neighborhood Thursday, swept up glass, boarded up windows and set out “Open” signs as they prepared to move forward.

Meanwhile, investigators with the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) interviewed witnesses and first responders and collected evidence they hope will pinpoint the exact cause of the explosion and fire. The UTC is leading the investigation into Wednesday’s blast.

Two buildings were destroyed in the 1:40 a.m. explosion. Damage to the buildings that housed the destroyed businesses has been estimated at $3 million.

In addition to the Neptune Coffee, those destroyed were Mr. Gyros and a Quick Stop convenience store. A bike shop, G&O Family Cyclery, was heavily damaged.

The Seattle Fire Department has deemed the outdoor natural-gas leak and resulting explosion accidental.

The city has vowed to assist owners of the three destroyed businesses as well as nearly three dozen others damaged by the blast.

Seattle’s Office of Economic Development is working with the businesses to complete the Washington State Economic Injury work sheet, which will allow business owners access to low-interest disaster-loan funds, according to Joe Mirabella, a spokesman for the department.

Nani Konswa, owner of the Hummus Cafe in Greenwood, cleans her restaurant the day after an explosion flattened buildings across the street. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

In addition, he said, staff will be working with businesses to help identify and troubleshoot their individual needs, including permitting and relocation if necessary.

The Department of Neighborhoods is collaborating with the Phinney Neighborhood Association to create a resource sheet with general information and resources, along with PSE information regarding gas lines, said spokeswoman Lois Maag.

On Thursday, she said, the department had four staff members walking door-to-door in a two-block radius from the perimeter to listen to concerns and needs and to answer questions.

The city will also be launching a website to provide resource information, to be updated as it becomes available.

Tim Pipes, owner of The Angry Beaver, a bar across the street from the destroyed businesses, said he’s been inundated with encouragement and offers of help from all over the country. He lost a window in the blast, and portions of his ceiling collapsed.

Pipes hopes to reopen by this weekend, but that could be delayed if asbestos is discovered in the building that houses his bar. The state Department of Labor & Industries requires owners to have their buildings inspected for asbestos before construction, renovation and demolition projects.

If asbestos is found, Pipes said, it could be a few months before he gets the all-clear.

But either way, he said, “We’re not going down. We’re coming back better than ever.”