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Explosion rips through West Shore apartments

Joelle Babula

An explosion ripped apart a West Shore apartment complex Monday morning, launching an unsuspecting plumber out of the building and into the side of a parked car.

The plumber, Steve Fellows, was treated and released at Tahoe Forest Hospital. No one else sustained any major injuries in the incident.

“I’m hurt, man. I’m so damn sore I feel like I got the tar beat out of me. I can’t believe I walked out of here. I can’t believe this. It’s like a dream,” Fellows said.

Fellows was replacing a hot waterheater in unit one of the Sunnyside Apartment complex at 1945 West Lake Blvd. when the explosion occurred shortly before 11 a.m. The residents of units one and two, the primary site of the explosion, were not at home at the time.

“Flash fires suck the wind out of you and sear your insides. My left lung hurts inside,” said Fellows, also a firefighter with Sierraville Fire Rescue. ” The floor came straight up, hit the ceiling and then blew out. I hit the ceiling with my head.”

Rod Collins, a division chief with the North Tahoe Fire Protection District, was the first firefighter on the scene.

“There was a lot of confusion and we had a small fire on the west side of the building which was put out by bystanders,” Collins said. “This has all the earmarkings of a propane explosion, but damage to the building has prevented us from investigating.”

Ali Martin, who lives in unit one with her two sons, said she’s been complaining to the owners of the building for the last seven months about strong gas odors in her home.

“My boys have been sick and I’ve been tired ever since I moved here seven months ago,” Martin said. “I don’t know if it’s the propane, but I’ve told the landlords since the beginning. I’ve warned them for so many months.”

Martin left her home 15 minutes before the explosion to walk across the street for her first day at work at Sunnyside Resort.

“I smelled the propane today and last night,” Martin said. “Last night it was really strong.”

According to Martin, the owners of the building, Bob and Allison Coleman of Carpinteria, didn’t come check out her complaints of a strong gas odor until two weeks ago.

“Allison smelled it and said it could be the pilot light on the stove,” Martin said. “Later she came out and told me that the propane company had refilled the tanks because they were low and when they get low you get a strong gas odor. So, I thought it was taken care of.”

The Coleman’s have owned the property for the last five months and have been in the process of converting from propane to natural gas. They’re expecting construction to begin possibly this week.

“We called in Suburban Propane and asked them to do an inspection of the unit after Martin’s complaints,” Allison said. “We were told that because the level of the tanks were so low, they generated a smell in the units, so the tanks were filled.”

After the propane tanks were filled, Allison went back into the apartment and noticed the smell of gas had dissipated.

“I didn’t smell anything anymore, there was a definite difference before and after the tanks were filled. As far as I knew, the problem had been taken care of,” Allison said. “That was 10 days ago.”

Martin was in a meeting when she was notified that her house had exploded.

“I’m really, really shook up. I have nothing. My brand new car was sitting in front of my house and it’s blown up, too.”

Martin hurried to her home after the explosion occurred, but Ben Clausen and Bryce Wilson, both working on the bicycle trail across the street from the complex, were the first people on the scene.

“The whole thing blew up six feet in the air, it sounded like four or five sticks of dynamite,” Clausen said. “I saw the plumber lying down, checked on him and then we ran through the house to look for anyone else. The way the house was, we were expecting to pull dead bodies out.”

On the other side of the building, both Clausen and Wilson discovered a small fire which they immediately put out with a hose. Clausen was treated and released for smoke inhalation at Tahoe Forest Hospital.

Two forklift operators at Sunnyside Marina next door to the complex also saw the explosion.

“It seriously looked like a movie,” said Tim Streuli who was working in the Sunnyside Marina parking lot at the time. “It was just a huge flash of fire.”

Jonathan King was working with Streuli and saw the whole incident as well.

“It blew and I didn’t think anything of it until glass came showering down like rain,” King said.

The explosion blew glass and debris across more than 100 feet.

“Pieces of this place were found all the way on the (Sunnyside) beach,” Fellows said.

Fellows, who works for Grady Plumbing, said he is sore and stunned but otherwise okay. He was still searching for his dog, Freebe, who was also expelled from the house in the explosion.

“She’s a black dog with a white neck and a cropped tail who answers to the name of Freebe,” Fellows said.

According to Rob Palmer with Placer County Environmental Health, a total of six bystanders were treated and released at Tahoe Forest Hospital, mostly for smoke inhalation. He also said that the North Tahoe Fire Protection District responded to the scene with 18 firefighter personnel including two engines, three ambulances and three chief officers. The Placer County Sheriff’s Department, CHP, Environmental Health, Office of Emergency Services and Animal Control were also on the site.

Although monetary damages to the building were unknown Monday afternoon, Palmer said the building is “totaled,” and that the units next to it cannot be occupied.

“The fear is that the first building might collapse and fall on the building next door,” Collins said. “The Red Cross has provided housing for residents who need it.”

When it comes to propane safety in the home, Collins said the very first thing to do if you smell gas is to get out of the house and call the fire department.

“If you smell gas, do not turn anything on. Do not turn on the lights or even use the phone,” Collins said. “Go to a remote location and call the fire department.”

Sierra Sun E-mail: sun@tahoe.com

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