An explosion that rocked Glenwood
For Rob Trebesh, Dec. 16, 1985 was just another work day. Trebesh, an engineer at Rocky Mountain Natural Gas in Glenwood Springs, the central office for the propane distributing company, was at his desk at about 9 a.m. when he heard an unusual whistling sound. At first he thought it was escaping air from a high-pressure hose used in the maintenance shop below his second floor office.”The next thing I knew … I saw a wall of flame come up in front of me,” he said. In that instant, he felt himself rising toward the ceiling “or coming down,” he couldn’t tell which. Then all was blackness.”When I woke up I was in suspended animation,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was right side up or upside down. My eyes were wide open but I couldn’t see a thing.”At first, Trebesh thought what had happened was localized to his office and that someone in another part of the building would come for him. He reached out into the darkness and felt debris.
“I started to push things away and just tried to get a grasp on the situation.”He also heard voices crying for help.”I knew who it was,” he said, people in neighboring offices who were trapped – just like he was.”For quite a while I lay there. I could hardly move. Then I smelled smoke,” he said. “I knew I had to do something on my own. I had the feeling I was in serious peril.”As he pushed to move debris from around him he turned and saw a glimmer of light, “like the light at the end of the tunnel. I knew it was my only chance.” He crawled over his desk chair and shouldered his way toward the light, pushing away drywall and pieces of ceiling until suddenly he was outside. But still he could not grasp what was happening.”I saw (fire chief) Jim Mason. There was smoke everywhere.”Mason packed him into an ambulance and he was taken to Valley View Hospital where he was treated for a broken collarbone and cuts.
It was days later, literally when the smoke cleared, that’s when Trebesh and the entire community finally understood the enormity of the disaster.In all, 12 people were killed and 15 injured in one of the worst disasters in the history of Glenwood Springs.That day, a trailer carrying a propane tank was backed into the building’s maintenance shop on the first floor. The driver was en route from Craig to Telluride with the tank which he believed was empty of gas, Trebesh said. However, the tank was somewhere from 29 to 85 percent full, according to a lawsuit filed by some of the families against Rocky Mountain Natural Gas. By law it should not have been more than 5 percent full.According to Trebesh, the pressure gauge was faulty and read empty. The driver of the truck, Leonard Chandler, removed the gauge to repair it, and gas began to hiss out of the tank. It was the sound Trebesh heard from his upstairs office. In minutes the big room was filled with gas. When it reached a hot water heater on the mezzanine floor it was ignited by the pilot light causing the explosion that ripped through the building.
Mason was in the first fire truck to arrive on the brisk December morning.”It was about nine in the morning when we got the call,” he said. “It was a very cold morning. There was lots of ice floating down the river.”When he came on the scene at first he thought only a part of the building had collapsed, but as he walked around the building he realize the entire structure was gone. The rubble was on fire and there were injured people walking around dazed. The scene was frantic.There were also two men pinned by huge pre-stressed concrete beams. Firefighters worked for hours to free them.”We didn’t know how many people were inside,” said Rachel Windh, who was a volunteer firefighter at the time.A construction crane was brought in to lift the beams from the two trapped men. One, Matt Hutson, miraculously stood up and walked out of the rubble when the debris was lifted off him, Mason said.Windh concentrated on the second man, Mike Kavanaugh, spraying water on and around him as the fire moved closer.Windh spoke to Kavanaugh as they waited for the debris to be lifted off him.”I said, Mike, we’re going to get you out. You’re going to be all right,” she said.In her heart, she wasn’t sure Kavanaugh would make it out alive.”It seemed like an eternity (until he was freed). Every second was an eternity.”Kavanaugh would survive the explosion, he sustained a spinal cord injury that he never fully recovered from.
“We transported 23 people to the hospital,” Mason said.The worst part of the tragedy was not just the loss of life but the connections between the dead and the living.”Everyone knew somebody there,” Mason said.Trebesh was doubly lucky that day. His wife, who was about five months with their second son, also worked at the building but had taken a leave of absence just a few weeks before to have her baby.”I was really grateful she was out of the building,” Trebesh said, his eyes tearing. “I feel so badly for those who lost people.”For the people of Glenwood Springs, the Rocky Mountain Natural Gas explosion was one of the worst if not the worst disaster the town had ever seen. A few years earlier a methane gas explosion in a coal mine near Redstone killed 15 miners. Some of them were from the Roaring Fork Valley. But Rocky Mountain Natural Gas was closer to home.
The ruined building was never rebuilt. A monument stands to the dead where the building once stood, a brick bench, a plaque and a flagpole. In January, 1986, the company sold out to KN Energy, Trebesh said.
Other memorials remain. The softball field at Two Rivers Park was named for Teri Luetke who loved to play the game. A ski run at Sunlight Mountain Resort was named for Jim Joslin.Over the years Glenwood Springs has grown. Behind Devereux Road there is now a community center and the sprawling Glenwood Meadows shopping center. The memory of that tragic day has faded or is unknown to many. The disaster has also been overshadowed by other tragedies, notably the Storm King wildfire in 1994 that killed 14 firefighters, which has its own memorial with pride of place in Two Rivers Park.Now, 20 years later, the tragedy is as fresh for those who were there as if it had happened a week ago. But that span of minutes on Dec. 16, 1985, changed many lives. For Trebesh, it was a new outlook on the rest of his life. In the aftermath of the explosion, Trebesh said he realized, “that you need to value the time we have here because it can end so quickly.”That’s why it’s important to remember those who were lost, and remember the tragedy itself that is part of the history of Glenwood Springs, part of what holds the place and its people together.”It’s important to remember that these were real people who perished,” he said.Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. firstname.lastname@example.org
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