Out of the ashes: Four years later, Bozeman still recovering from Downtown explosion


Out of the Ashes: four years later, Bozeman still recovering from Downtown explosion 2-24-13

BOZEMAN, Mont. - March 5, 2009 is a day Bozeman will never forget.

"It was hard to believe it was a violent and horrid as it turned out to be," said Downtown business owner Sheryl Sanders.

"There was glass all over the roads, and then there were people kind of walking around that seemed kind of dazed," said Bozeman Fire Captain Graver Johnson.

Just after 8 a.m., a massive gas line explosion destroyed a huge portion the 200 block of East Main Street, killing one person.

It proved to be the worst disaster to hit Downtown since a 1922 blaze. Captain Johnson was first on scene, and recounted that day.

"It was just trying to protect and keep the fire from spreading in some of the adjacent buildings," he said. But an open gas line that wouldn't be quenched by the water proved difficult.

By the time crews put the blaze out, four buildings and several businesses were destroyed.

Sheryl Sanders owns children's clothing store LillyLu -- one of those businesses.

"Some things half burnt, children's shoes, dresses still on the hanger," she said, looking down at a binder full of photos.

Sanders kept an album filled with pictures of the scene -- a reminder of what she lost.

"I was in a state of shock for a long, long time," she said. "I grieved terribly. I lost a lot of personal things."

Sanders struggled to reopen, but did so down the street less than a year later. Like many of the businesses, she was determined to start fresh.

"And we said, 'What's next?' And out of the 'what's next' was -- 'let's build,'" said Randy Kemp, Adjutant for American Legion Gallatin Post 14.

He said the club, who's building caught on fire from the explosion, wanted to rebuild first -- and they did, a year and half later.

The new building is larger and safer. He said membership's nearly tripled since the day of the explosion.

"Out of the ashes, we came. And we have had a new beginning," he said.

But two lots still sit empty, a reminder of the struggles to recover.

Chris Pope's family owns the Osborn Block Building lot- formerly one of the oldest buildings Downtown.

The building, which sat east of the Legion building, wasn't completely destroyed in the fire -- but Pope said it cost too much to bring back to life.

So over a year after the explosion, they decided to tear it down. "The architectural loss is substantial," Pope said.

Wreckage still scatters the ground, pieces of history that will never come back.

"This shows the square nails that they used back in 1882 when the building was built," Pope said, holding up a piece of board with rusty square nails sticking out of it.

A mural now lines Pope's property to cover up the emptiness that sits behind it. But within the next year, he hopes to replace that mural with a brand new building.

They weren't able to rebuild as quickly as other buildings like the Legion, he said, because the economic downturn hit him hard, and insurance only funds up to 30 percent of a new building.

It's been a long process, but Pope said they are finally ready to rebuild. He says architects are in the process of drawing up plans for a building with residential spaces in the back and businesses lining the front.

"We're going to have to start over again" he said. "When we start to see the ground breaking, we'll be looking for folks to fill the building as tenants. And that'll be an exciting moment."

He said they first have to approach the city and historic preservation agencies for the design review process, which could take a couple months.

"We'll know exactly where we stand probably by the end of the summer, which would put a building/construction period possibly starting up in the fall" he said.

He said if all goes according to plan, they could complete construction by the summer of 2014.

Pope said the new building will be energy efficient and sustainable, and he hopes it'll become an icon for Downtown Bozeman just as the Osborn Building was.

"It won't look quite the same and it will feel differently, but we hope it does respect what was here before," he said.

The Downtown explosion changed Bozeman forever. But as each business and building owner continues to recover, a gratefulness to the community emerges.

"So much love here, so much support," Sanders said, tearing up as she read letters and emails she received after the explosion. "And it continues. Thank you Bozeman."

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