Firefighters and fire investigators were in the Old Market on Sunday, trying to determine what ignited the massive blaze that originated at M's Pub Saturday afternoon and wasn't brought under control until midnight.
The fire-scarred remains of the century-old building sits caked in ice after a day and night that had approximately 60 firefighters dealing with sub-zero temperatures.
Daylight brought a view that showed the roof was gone, having collapsed at 10:30 p.m. Parts of the first floor also collapsed into the basement of the structure. A bright blue sky peered through gashes in the building that had been filled with flames just hours earlier.
“We've had a partial collapse of the basement area in M's Pub, which has made the firefighting efforts very difficult,” said Omaha Fire Chief Bernie Kanger. “As you can tell the conditions out here are very cold. We've got some mechanical issues with pumps that are starting to freeze up. We've got a lot of water on the ground. These types of buildings have a brick exterior and a wood frame interior, which makes a collapse potential very real for our people," added Chief Kanger.
Fire crews were rotated to the scene in bitter cold temperatures overnight, keeping hot spots in check to keep any remaining threats from spreading to neighboring buildings.
The nearby buildings were evacuated as the fire spread. There was no immediate head count on the number of people displaced from the lofts on the upper floors. The Red Cross is assisting Old Market residents. Those displaced by the fire are asked to go to the Residence Inn at 106 South 15th Street. Those who want to help the fire victims can text 90999 to automatically donate $10 or phone 1-800-RED CROSS.
The area of 10th to 12th streets, Howard to Harney and 11th Street from Farnam to Jackson remains closed to pedestrians and vehicles.
The blaze at South 11th and Howard streets was reported at 2:51 p.m. Upon arrival, crews found flames coming from the basement of M's Pub and could smell natural gas. Firefighters entered the building and searched the apartments on the second, third and fourth floors, but did not find any occupants.
A second alarm was called at 3:43 p.m. and a third at 7:26 p.m.
Witnesses told WOWT 6 News they detected a strong smell of gas right before there was an explosion. One said she felt a rumble and tried to get out. The other saw people leaving the restaurant bleeding from being cut by flying glass and debris.
"The whole building shook with the explosion, smoke started filling...I'm on the fourth floor," said resident Rebecca Keating-Lefler. "The smell of gas on 11th and Howard was so awful I couldn't breathe, so I pulled my car into the ally and I ran upstairs and dropped off my work. I called 911 to tell them about the gas, that I could smell the leak and I ran to my neighbors and knocked on their doors to tell everyone to get out. We tried to get on the elevator and got stuck in the elevator on the second floor, but it opened up but we came running out and they were evacuating. The explosion took place at M's and people were screaming and running out of there trying to get away from the fire."
MUD shut off gas to the building at 4:28 p.m. Witnesses told WOWT 6 News they saw crews working in the area just before the blast and fire. MUD said none of its crews were working there at the time.
One occupant of the building suffered a laceration and singed hair while he was exiting the building. Another person was taken to the hospital at 6:24 p.m. for a broken leg suffered when the individual slipped on ice. No firefighters were hurt.
"You could tell it wasn't a car accident, so I ran around the corner and that's when I saw the flames, I came to see if I could help," said witness Richard Bronner. "It seemed like it was spreading, it came up the side of the building pretty quickly and at that point that's when the fire department and the police told us to step back."
Mike Vaske is manager of Jams near M’s Pub. “We’re filled with smoke, we just sent our staff away. Not sure if we’re going to be able to open or not. Safety is a concern, want to make sure it’s cleared out for them."
Fire officials were working Sunday to have utilities for the three buildings to the west (buildings that house Stokes restaurant and Billy Frogg's bar and grill) turned back on so that pipes do not freeze and were in the process of allowing business owners to reopen.
WOWT 6 News initially spoke with M's Pub owner Ron Samuelson by phone. Samuelson was in Phoenix Saturday awaiting a flight back to Omaha. He was told three people were injured, but were all treated and released.
Upon hearing the news, Arnie Breslow of the Old Market South Neighborhood Association said, “To say the least, I’m sick. To lose those buildings, it makes you heartsick.” He is glad no one was seriously injured or killed.
Since the Old Market is a historic place and tourist attraction, the destruction is a big hit to the neighborhood and a huge loss for the metro. “We are more than willing to grab a hold and lead the effort. Hold a meeting and see what plans come out of it. It’s important that we rally and bring that back as soon as we can.”