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A photo showing the destruction caused by the natural gas explosion on August 2. This photo was taken a day after the explosion occurred. Photo by Reid Westrem.

Explosion leaves permanent mark

Minnehaha Academy is forever changed by the tragic events of August 2nd

Three months later, community members reflect on loss, find hope

At 10:22 AM on Wednesday August 2, 2017, a gas explosion occurred at Minnehaha Academy’s Upper School. According to a preliminary investigation report released by the NTSB, this explosion was caused when two workers from CenterPoint Energy’s contractor, Master Mechanical in Eagan, were installing pipes in the boiler room that would support moving a gas meter from the inside of the building to the outside.

This work was requested by CenterPoint Energy and Minnehaha Academy agreed that CenterPoint could move the gas meter.  Acting under the direction of CenterPoint, Master Mechanical requested and received the necessary project permit from the City of Minneapolis.
On the day of August 2, according to the NTSB preliminary report, “While workers were removing the existing piping, a full-flow natural gas line at pressure was opened.”

Maintenance manager Don DuBois was in the building at the time.  He heard noise coming from the boiler room area and went to investigate. Upon arrival there, DuBois saw an open pipe and could see that natural gas was leaking into the building. DuBois ran up from the basement, alerting other staff members in the building using his hand-held radio and calling out with his voice. Less than a minute later, the explosion occurred. The lives of beloved community members custodian John Carlson (age 82) and secretary Ruth Berg (age 47) were lost and others were injured. Among the injured were assistant soccer coach and custodian Bryan Duffey, technology support employee Patrick Gibbons, President Donna Harris and others.

In the minutes after the explosion, many individuals that were in the building began to trickle out into the back and front parking lots, some with minor scrapes and bruises, others with more serious issues like concussions and cuts. Administration assistant Mary Kate Fretheim, who was in the building at the time, remembers what it was like upon coming out of the building.

“People were crying, some were walking very gingerly,” Fretheim said. “Mr. DuBois had a shirt on his head and Mr. Bjorlin had blood on his legs. I’m [thinking] ‘What in the world?’”

Though the exact time that paramedics and police arrived is unknown, it was likely close to 10:35 AM. In the minutes after the explosion, neighbors and others who were nearby also arrived to help.

Dave Cairns, who works in the Northwest Conference house across the street from the back of north campus, arrived on the scene alongside neighbors and some paramedics to help rescue Duffey from the rubble where he was trapped beneath a portion of a collapsed wall.

Nine people were taken to the hospital, some with more serious injuries than others. Duffey lost his leg and suffered head trauma, while technology support employee Patrick Gibbons fractured his lumbar and also sustained head injuries.

Among other losses, there was significant damage to Minnehaha’s buildings and their contents.  As of October, Minnehaha Academy administration continues to work on the financial damages from the explosion. This number will be reviewed later on by Minnehaha’s insurance company.  Current costs for the school include the two year lease for the temporary Mendota Heights location, new furniture and renovations in the new building, the cost of the demolition of parts of north campus (which is expected to begin in November), the expense to hire a team of architects and designers and the cost of rebuilding. As of October, it is not yet known how much of these costs will be covered by Minnehaha’s insurance company and how much will need to be covered through donations and fundraising.  Donors have already made gifts to Minnehaha, and fundraising will continue.   

Currently, there are many pending legal issues surrounding the investigation into the explosion. It has not been determined whether or not Minnehaha (or its insurance company) will enter into a law suit against any either Master Mechanical or Centerpoint Energy. However, according to the Star Tribune, on October 18 the family of Ruth Berg filed a lawsuit that claims that the contractors from Master Mechanical who were doing work on the gas line “ran to save themselves” rather than warn others in the building of potential danger. The suit also raises questions regarding why the gas valve upstream was not turned off before the work was done and why employees in the building were not notified of the work.

As of today, November 2, three months have passed since the explosion on August 2. Though some issues, such as where to relocate students for the current school year, have been resolved, information regarding pending legal issues and financial discussions will likely come to the surface in the weeks and months to come.

Flowers hang on the soccer field fence as a sign of love and hope in the weeks after the explosion.
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About Emma Melling

Emma is a senior staff writer who is interested in English and literature, and is also passionate about French language and culture. She enjoys writing features on arts and human interest topics and loves listening to people’s stories. Her hobbies include reading, hiking and spending time with family.

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