Another Bozeman Story

Yesterday, March 5, marked the one year anniversary of a tragedy in downtown Bozeman. A little after 8 a.m. that morning, an explosion rocked Main Street in the block between Rouse and Bozeman. The blast from this natural gas explosion destroyed five businesses and sadly one woman, Tara Bowman, lost her life. And it shook me to the core.

It’s not just the obvious randomness of this event. It’s that my family and I had dinner at one of the restaurants

 that was destroyed and we had walked that very block less than twelve hours before the blast. It’s also that Younger Boy attended the elementary school that was one-half a block from the explosion. And we watched helplessly as the events unfolded.

We had attended Younger Boy’s taekwondo belt ceremony on March 4 and decided to have dinner downtown afterwards to celebrate. We walked from a parking lot on North Bozeman down Main Street past the R Bar, Boodles, LillyLu, Montana Trails Art Gallery, all businesses that were destroyed, to Starky’s, one of our favorite lunch spots that had recently opened for dinner. After dinner, we walked back to the car on that peaceful winter night, completely oblivious to the hell that would occur the next morning. The boys playfully threw snowballs at each other and The Husband and I looked in the store front windows at a packed house at Boodles and at the college students partying mid-week at the R Bar. And looking back, I shudder to think, what if it happened that night?

Since we had a late night, I drove my son to school instead of having him ride the bus which would have dropped him off just twelve minutes before the blast. As we were driving down the block by school, I noticed people coming out of their houses and looking around which struck me as odd. We arrived at school just seconds after the explosion occurred which launched debris high into the sky. Some of it landed on the school playground where the kids always stayed before the bell rang at 8:30. When we walked up to the playground, I saw a huge plume of black smoke which looked like it was coming from the top of the school. The kids on the playground were huddled in a mass and the some of the kids we knew came running towards us. “Did you hear it? Did you see it?” they all screamed, some of them crying. At that moment, no one knew what was going on. An announcement came over the intercom telling everyone to go inside the building immediately.

What I didn’t know was that The Husband was also feeling the effects of the explosion 10 blocks away. He was standing in the lobby talking with a patient when the force of the blast blew the front door open like a gust of wind. Just as quickly, it sucked the door shut again. They assumed a car had hit the building. But nothing. Moments later, the radio announced that there had been a major explosion in downtown but there were no details. When he looked out the front door of his office and saw the huge smoke plume rising from the direction of our son’s school, he jumped in the car and headed to get him. He had no idea I had driven him to school that day.

After everyone was herded into the school, the students went to their classrooms with many stunned parents in tow. From my son’s second floor classroom that looked out onto Rouse, we all stared in disbelief at a two-story ball of flames coming from the middle of the block just across the street from the school. The poor teacher, who was working in the classroom when it happened, told me “I thought I jet had landed on the building.” Moms frantically dialled their cell phones trying to find information about the cause of the blast. The moment I heard the words gas leak while staring at the roaring flames just a half a block away, I took my son and left. We did walk down to Main Street, but mainly I just wanted to get away from there. I drove through the debris to my husband’s office. The school did not evacuate until 2 p.m. that afternoon.

Today there’s still a gigantic hole where those thriving businesses once resided downtown. Many have reopened in new locations. Shattered windows have long since been repaired. Some of the shattered lives will never be. The wonderful sense of community that binds those who know each other, and even those who don’t, is stronger than ever. But when I drive that block of Main Street, I still get a shiver up my spine thinking about what a difference twelve hours can make.