Memories of “Good News” explosion still fresh for some victims after 25 years
By Alesha Damerville
Dr. David Criste and a passerby help injured Karen Kite while her husband, Eugene, awaits help on a nearby car hood following the explosion of the Good News Building. Courtesy of Steamboat Pilot & Today/Photographer Deborah (Ward) Olsen
By Joanna Dodder Nellans
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS- Every once in awhile when Elyn Nicholson strolls past her little carved wooden bear or her 6-foot-tall wooden cowboy, they trigger memories of the horrifying day that her world exploded.
It was Feb. 3, 1994 just after noon. She had just finished blow drying Kitty Callsen’s hair at her Classified Hair salon on the second floor of the Good News Building at the corner of 5th and Lincoln in Steamboat Springs.
“It’s like the oxygen got sucked out of the room, and then I was downstairs and thinking, ‘What happened?’ I don’t remember the explosion itself,” Nicholson said. Someone dug her out of the rubble of the collapsed structure, carried her outside and then set her feet down, unaware that both her ankles were broken.
Among the few items intact after the explosion were the wood statues that the Front Page gift shop had placed in front of the building. They were charred and eerily encased in icicles, but still standing. Nicholson ended up buying two of them in a charity auction and now they stand guard at her home in Cave Creek, Arizona.
“Sometimes I look at them and think, ‘Gee, how long ago was that?’” Nicholson said. She uses her daughter Lane’s birthday to remember, since Lane was born almost exactly a year later.
Nicholson’s body continues to remind her of that fateful day, too. After a week in the hospital, the 29-year-old Nicholson spent at least eight months in physical therapy before going to work at another hair salon. It took a couple years to heal and she couldn’t hike for several more years. Today she maintains a strict daily workout regimen to keep her ankles and knees as strong as she can, but every cherished weekly hike still puts her in pain. Divorced with two grown children born after the explosion, Nicholson continues to work as a hairdresser, real estate agent and spec homebuilder, too.
Nicholson was one of six people who were seriously injured in the Good News Building explosion. Others were Callsen and Nicholson’s employee J. Robert Stevens, who had just walked next door for lunch; Good Times Sports owners Gene and Karen Kite; and their employee James Brooks. They mostly suffered fractures to their legs, ankles and feet.
Approximately 50 people were inside the Good News Building when it exploded, including lunch patrons of the 5thStreet Café and Paradise Grill. Diners included several judges, court employees and Sheriff Ed Burch, who all worked in the county courthouse across the street.
Amazingly, no one died when the two-story, half-block-long structure was incinerated. If not for the bravery of numerous bystanders who rushed into the crumbled remains to rescue victims immediately after the blast, it’s likely that some would have perished. Firefighters arrived within four minutes of the first call, but the structure was already so engulfed in flames that they couldn’t get inside, recalled Mike Middleton.
Middleton is the only firefighter left in the Steamboat fire department who responded to the Good News emergency call. He spent about 10 hours spraying water on hot spots from the bucket of a ladder truck with a birds-eye view of the destruction, then spent the next few days chopping ice off sewer grates so Greeley Gas employees could test sewer lines for gas. While he’s responded to some severe fires since, none exploded and caused such a mass evacuation. Like many others, he was amazed no one died.
Officials quickly determined a gas leak caused the explosion, but finding the leak was a bigger challenge. Emergency officials evacuated the downtown area spreading from 3rdto 11thStreet and Yampa to Oak when gas was detected in a storm sewer two blocks from the explosion. Then as a precaution in case another explosion might occur, Greeley Gas shut off gas to nearly 1,500 Old Town businesses and homes. Many residents and visitors were unable to return for two days. Hotels and residents stepped up to offer them shelter.
Investigators concluded that 18 years before the explosion, a U.S. West subcontractor damaged a Greeley Gas pipeline behind the Good News Building while laying a phone line. Greeley Gas wrapped it in field tape instead of replacing it. Over the years, the tape wore off. Gas slowly filled the crawl space under the building, then a hot water heater ignited the gas on that fateful day.
James Heckbert, who is still practicing law in Steamboat, was the lead attorney in a lawsuit filed by victims against Greeley Gas. The jury awarded them nearly $5 million combined.
“There’s never been anything in Steamboat Springs that compared to the catastrophe of the Good News Building explosion,” Heckbert said.
While only a half-dozen people suffered serious physical trauma in the blast, others were hurt financially and/or emotionally. Nicholson suffered all three, since she also had stored childhood photos and artwork in her hair salon.
JoAnn Baker Paul wasn’t hurt physically but she lost all her work in her second-story art studio, including photos and drawings from her 30 years in the New York City area.
“I thought a plane hit the back of the building,” Paul said of the explosion. “I remember feeling this intense pressure…and it really hurt physically. It was a shell shock kind of vibration. I’ve never felt anything like that since.” And she felt lucky that she and real estate agent Catherine Lykken were able to run down a fire exit stairway to escape.
“I think a lot about that event,” said Paul, who left Steamboat for Craig three years ago. “It’s a huge part of my life. The real blessing of it was that I discovered I had depression.” Her PTSD from the explosion led her to seek therapy and that’s when she realized she had been clinically depressed for years, so she was able to get help for that, too. Still, though, loud noises freak her out and she’s relatively reclusive.
The explosion also contributed to her divorce.
“I was projecting on to him, but also he didn’t understand what was happening to me,” Paul said. “After a couple of months, he thought I should just be OK.”
Paul suspects many others also suffered PTSD from the explosion but, like her, weren’t aware of the acronym.
Jenny Wilson Wall figures she had PTSD for a short time while she had trouble sleeping, but she didn’t have time to continue to ponder her experience in the explosion. Just before the blast occurred, she had given notice to the Front Page gift shop that she was leaving to start her own business called Moose Mountain Trading Company. She jumped right in and continued to operate it for 21 years. Today she manages the LiftUp Thrift Store in Steamboat.
Over the years, other people involved in the explosion have moved away; some passed away, too. Six years after the explosion, former sheriff Burch crashed his plane into the ocean off the Alaska coast. And a two-line obituary for James Brooks, age 23 at the time of the blast, was published locally 18 years later.
It was a decade before the empty Good News lot became Steamboat Ski and Bike Kare and the empty lot stopped being a reminder to some.
Wall said she really doesn’t think about the Good News explosion any more, but Paul does. When she looks up at the moon, she often remembers her treasured pastels of a lunar eclipse that were among the works she lost.