MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Juan Cortez was about as close as anyone wanted to be. At 8:30 a.m. Thursday morning, the Cub Foods worker was busy moving shopping carts in the store’s parking lot. Suddenly, at the south entrance along West 60th Street, Cortez saw the unthinkable.
“It was more like huge flames shooting straight up,” Cortez said.
To Cortez, it seemed like the pavement collapsed into a slight hole, before the street erupted in a billowing inferno.
“We were behind these windows and you could still feel the heat, yes, you could still feel the heat,” he said.
The break in the 20-inch gas main caused an eruption that was both deafening and dangerous. A loud hissing noise could be heard for blocks around as natural gas burned unabated. Thousands of residents in nearby neighborhoods were ordered to leave as well as reporters who rushed in to cover the story.
WCCO-TV reporter Holly Wagner was on the air when the instructions echoed though a police bullhorn. “We are getting an order from police to leave, that’s the seriousness of the situation,” Wagner told her viewers.
Minneapolis Police went door-to-door, evacuating a 100-square block area. There were initial fears that the gas might be seeping into underground sewer lines, a potentially deadly situation.
Residents could be seen with cameras, gazing in disbelief at the flames shooting high into the air. Others were observed walking away in pajamas or clutching pets.
Four-hundred elementary students from Windom Immersion school near 59th and Wentworth, were whisked away in single file, the line of kids moving slightly slower than a flood of cars clogging the neighborhood streets.
“It hasn’t been a very lucky St. Patrick’s day,” said fourth-grader Hannah Hall.
Her dad, Josh Minor, was getting her ready for school when the electricity in his South Minneapolis home suddenly went out. That’s when he noticed the fireball to the south.
“We had a power surge and I saw a wall of flames at the top of the trees,” he said. “The kids panicked when we saw it.”
Two-and-a-half-hours after the fiery and frightening ordeal began, the threat was over. The gas was off and the area was deemed safe to re-enter. Just as they had left their cozy houses a couple of hours ago, folks walked back home. And down the street, dozens of grateful Cub Foods employees, like Cortez, went back to work.
At the front entrance to the store Cortez was seen clutching a melted memory, a piece of melted plastic that once was the letter “C” above the doors!
“Did quite a number to the store, yeah,” he said. “Just a little piece of the sign.”