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20 years ago: Gas explosion in St. Cloud killed four, led to safety changes

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Firefighters comb through the rubble of Bellantti's Pizza & Deli building.
In a Dec. 11, 1998 photo, firefighters comb through the rubble of Bellantti's Pizza & Deli building, after a fatal gas main explosion leveled the building and heavily damaged adjacent structures in St. Cloud, Minn.
St .Cloud Times via AP 1998

On a sunny Friday morning on Dec. 11, 1998, a construction crew was installing fiber-optic cable near the Stearns County courthouse in downtown St. Cloud when they struck a natural gas line, triggering a leak.

About 40 minutes later, a massive explosion destroyed six buildings, including a pizza restaurant, bar, apartment units and a law office. 

Four people were killed, including two Northern States Power Co. workers, an apartment tenant and a postal worker on her lunch break. Eleven others were injured, one seriously. 

The explosion shook the busy downtown and left one block looking like a war zone, with piles of debris and clouds of dust. Eventually, the tragedy also led to changes in state law and safety improvements.

Investigators work to find what caused a gas explosion.
In this Dec. 12, 1998 photo, with some rubble cleared away, investigators worked to find what caused a gas explosion. Today, the area is a parking lot.
St .Cloud Times via AP 1998

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis was a state senator at the time of the blast. He said he was at a nearby radio station when he heard the news.

"Going down there was just surreal, especially knowing that there were individuals that who were at that time still trapped in the building, and people that had died," Kleis said. "Seeing the devastation — just that huge pile of rubble in the center of our downtown."

Mike Holman was St. Cloud fire chief at the time and retired five years after the blast. In a phone interview, he recalled how firefighters had to pull several people out of the leveled buildings.

"It's nothing you want to happen, and you hope never happens again," he said.

According to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board, after the cable crew struck the gas line, the foreman informed his supervisor, but did not immediately call authorities. After the blast, Kleis helped author a state law requiring excavators who breach a pipeline to immediately notify 911.

In the aftermath of the explosion, communication proved difficult, as phone lines became overloaded. Kleis said the tragedy led to state funding for the 800-megahertz radio system to make sure emergency responders can communicate.