Memories -- 10 years later

A new building is in progress at site of the Good News Building explosion

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STEAMBOAT SPRINGS

February 3, 2004. The day came and went and JoAnn Baker Paul was so busy she didn't even notice. When she realized two weeks later that the 10-year anniversary of one of the most traumatic events of her life had breezed passed her without a notice, Baker Paul was surprised. For years, she never went a day without thinking about the explosion.

It happened Feb. 3, 1994, during lunch hour. The cavernous Good News Building was full of activity -- a hair salon, two restaurants, a sporting goods store and a gift shop handling the lunchtime crowd.

Susie Kleman was in the kitchen of her restaurant, the Fifth Street Cafe, preparing for the lunch rush.

"I can't even say it was loud," she said. "I didn't even realize what had happened until after the fact."

One minute she was cutting vegetables, the next minute she was on the floor, knocked down by the invisible force of a gas line explosion.

There was another cook in the kitchen with Kleman. Half of the building had collapsed. The cook and Kleman had to crawl through debris to get out the door.

"We made it to the hallway and saw what was going on," Kleman said. "I remember seeing the flame. It was like I was in 'Backdraft' the way the flames went back and forth."

Sheriff Ed Burch, who had been eating at the Fifth Street Cafe, was leading people out of the building single file.

Kleman stood on the sidewalk watching as her and her husband's restaurant burned to the ground, along with the livelihoods of several other people who were standing nearby.

"I was covered in blood, not mine, and I didn't even know it," Kleman said.

The injured were led or carried across the street to the courthouse where emergency medical care technicians were waiting.

Next door, chiropractor David Criste was in his office at the corner of Fifth and Oak streets. He was just leaving for lunch when he saw the building explode.

"I didn't even have my jacket on," he said. "I was over there in 30 seconds. I saw that most people were getting out of the building, but there were people still trapped in the backpacking store."

For the next hour, Criste performed cardiopulmonary resucitation on those who needed it. He was so focused on helping the injured that he didn't notice the temperature.

"There were cars parked next to the building where I was performing first aid," he said. "I realized that the grill was melting out of the car beside me. I realized it was so hot."

He remembers the heat from the flames reaching the beverage containers in the restaurants. "They were blowing up and dropping around us."

Trying to be objective

It's the strange irony of the journalist's life that the worst days for others, the days of large-scale tragedy, can be the best days for the newspaper, former Steamboat Pilot editor Tom Ross said."It's the day when we all come together as a team."

Once it was discovered that a gas leak caused the fire, downtown Steamboat Springs was evacuated, and the gas lines to most of Old Town were shut off. The Steamboat Pilot & Today building was located on the corner of 11th Street and Lincoln Avenue and -- on one of the biggest news days the paper had ever experienced -- no reporter was allowed in the office.

"We got together and found out who had a Mac at home, and we wrote our stories from there," Ross said. "It really is amazing what we did to put the newspaper out the next day."

Deb Olsen, now the publisher of Steamboat Magazine, was a reporter for the newspaper at the time of the explosion.

"I was the only one in the office when the police scanner went insane," Olsen said. "I arrived early enough that I could park pretty close to the (Good News Building). There were no barriers. No officials. There were just a lot of civilians helping civilians."

Olsen started doing her job right away. She was taking photographs and talking to people, trying to find out what had happened.

"I was kind of on autopilot, but I remember a scene where a man was carrying a child out of the building. The boy's hair was on fire," she said. "It was hard to stay objective after that. I'll never forget that child."

The youngest survivor

That child was 6-year-old Tyler Callsen. Now 16, he attends boarding school in Connecticut.

By phone, he shared his memories of that day.

Callsen was in the Classified Hair Salon, waiting while his mother, Kitty Callsen, got her hair cut.

"I was sitting on a bench, drawing in a coloring book," he said. "I don't know why, but I remember that so well. I looked up to show my mom my drawing, and I heard a boom."

The boy was knocked unconscious.

"They found me standing up straight in the corner," he said. "I woke up on the street, and I didn't know what was going on. My hair was sticking up straight. I had a cut from glass around my eye."

He didn't have nightmares as everyone expected. "But I always thought of it. And I never liked the smell of gas. When I was small and we went to the gas station, I always covered my nose."

Criste, the chiropractor who helped the injured, did have nightmares. After he had done all he could, Criste went back to his office without eating lunch and took a shower. "I had blood all over me," he said. "I had nightmares about it for two months. The injuries I saw were so severe. It was as if the injured had stepped on land mines.

"I still think about it. It's hard to forget."

After the fire went out

"I went home and ran a hot bath and climbed in and just shook," Olsen said. "At the time, I held it together. We all helped people until the professionals arrived.

"But I remember walking back to my car, and there was a judge walking to her car. We just looked at each other. At that moment, I knew I had held it together as long as I could."

The next morning was bitterly cold. The water from the firefight was hanging in thick icicles on the skeleton of the building.

In front of it stood an incongruous trio of charred but basically untouched wooden carvings -- an American Indian, a bear and a mustachioed man -- guarding the front door as they always had, covered head to toe in ice.

Susie Kleman saw that one wall of the restaurant was still standing.

"It was where I always hung my purse," she said. "I asked some firemen if they would go and look for my purse. They just laughed, but they looked and brought back this big black thing that was frozen."

She brought it home and thawed it in the sink. Inside, the pictures of her family were untouched.

It was a small miracle, but one of many. Every life inside that building was saved.

For everyone there that day, it is almost impossible to comprehend that an explosion that collapsed the busiest building in downtown at the busiest hour of the day killed no one.

People were hurt, but no one died.

Almost everyone ends retelling of that day with the same sentence, "It's a miracle that no one died."

"When we look back," Olsen said, "despite the fact that there was serious loss of property and injury, I think we escaped a serious tragedy."

Ten years later

Kleman, who now works as a staff assistant for the Steamboat Springs Parks and Recreation Department, hadn't thought about the Good News Building for years. She drove by the vacant lot every day without a passing glance.

It was when the construction crews began work last year on a new building there, the future home of Steamboat Ski and Bike Kare, that Kleman's memories started to return.

"I see that building going up, and I can picture the whole place again," she said. "It took a long time to be able to sleep after that.

"I still can't stand to hear the sound of the furnace going on. To this day, I sleep upstairs away from it."

Ten years later, what stays in Olsen's mind about the explosion is all that was lost in that fire. The file cabinets full of records, the computers and all the information they held and the life's work of one woman, photographer JoAnn Baker Paul, destroyed in minutes. Baker Paul kept decades worth of photographs, many she had taken in New York, at her office because she was afraid of fire at her old farm house, Olsen said.

"When the dust settled, I went back to my regular job, which was covering the business angle of things," Olsen said. "I wrote about how many businesses lost everything. They had back up files in the cabinet right next to their computers, and they lost the backups."

When Olsen bought Steamboat Magazine recently, she backed everything up and moved it off site.

Ten years later, the Good News explosion stands out as one of the most profound points in Steamboat's history -- the devastating fire, the loss of a popular downtown shopping and dining area, and the mental and physical aftermath for those who were there.

"I think it had a lot of impact that is still being felt today," Criste said. "The people who were injured are still dealing with pain and dysfunction.

"I'm glad something is finally being done with that empty lot."

-- To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210

or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com

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