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TRANSCRIPT: City briefing on Old Market fire

Posted at 12:00 PM, Jan 12, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-12 13:00:35-05

A transcript of a briefing with Omaha city officials on Monday, Jan. 11, days after the Old Market fire:

STOTHERT: We are all hoping for the same outcome, and that is to save and rebuild this centerpiece of the Old Market.

Let me thank the Omaha Fire Department for its immediate response Saturday afternoon, insuring the safety of the residents and employees of the building and working in extreme weather conditions to control this fire.
Other departments, police, public works, and our building inspectors and planning department have provided continual support to this operation.
As this investigation moves forward, our primary concern must be public safety. Here today with me is Omaha Fire Chief Bernie Kanger. He was on the scene Saturday to direct the operation.Thank you, Chief Kanger for your leadership.
Assistant Fire Chief Dan Olsen oversees the fire investigation unit. Jay Davis, superintendent of the permits and inspections division, and from public works, Director Bob Stubbe, and traffic engineer Murphy Koti, and our city attorney, Paul Kratz, and planning director James Thiele are also here.
Let's begin with Chief Kanger, chief?

KANGER: Thank you, mayor. Good Afternoon. I'd like to begin by expressing our sincere regrets to the employees, occupants and owners of M's Pub and the residents of the apartments damaged or destroyed by the devastating fire.
Secondly, I'd like to extend my gratitude to the Old Market community and the residents of the city of Omaha for support during this event, specifically Hyatt Place, Scooters, Upstream Brewery and Subway.
These businesses, along with many others, provided shelter, food, and hot drinks for our crews while we worked in some of the most adverse conditions that I've ever encountered.
I also want to thank the volunteers from the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army for your presence and support while we battled this severe cold. We could not do it without all of your help.
On January 9 at 2:51 p.m., Omaha fire crews were dispatched to a possible explosion in a building at 422 S. 11th street. The first arriving crew was on scene at 2:54 p.m., or two minutes and 48 seconds after they were dispatched.
Upon arrival, we encountered fire coming from the basement of the building on the 11th street side, and we could smell natural gas.
A working fire was declared at 3:04 p.m. our initial priorities were to rescue and clear the building of all civilians, contain the fire and prevent fire extension.
To that end, crews entered the building and searched apartments on the second, third, and fourth floor and declared the building all clear.
Keep in mind, during that operation, they had a working gas-fed fire below them and heavy smoke conditions on the second, third, and fourth floors, it made it a very challenging endeavor.
A second alarm was requested at 3:43 p.m., MUD arrived at 3:16 and terminated gas service to the structure at 4:28 p.m. Due to the fire conditions and extreme weather, a third alarm was declared at 7:26 p.m. The roof of the building collapsed at 10:30, and parts of the first floor of the building had collapsed into the basement of the structure.
The fire was declared under control at midnight. And it took approximately 60 Firefighters to help control this blaze. Every day we have 174 firefighters on duty. So for this particular event, approximately one-third of our entire force was committed to fighting this fire.
One occupant of the building suffered a laceration and singed hair while exiting the building prior to our arrival. This was an M's Pub employee, that was trying to enter the basement in order to shut the gas off when they had detected a gas odor. That employee made it to the top of the stairs, when the explosion occurred and had suffered some minor injuries. They were transported to Nebraska Medicine.
Later that evening, we also had a firefighter that suffered a broken hand after falling on the ice. This was after the fire was declared under control. And while we were trying to manage hot spots, this occurred approximately 2 a.m., in the morning.
The fire building is part of a five-building complex that extends from 11th street to the west.
The fire building, and the building directly to the west of it, which we would call building one, and building two, are part of an exclusion zone where we are not allowing any civilians, residents, occupants, to enter, due to the potential for collapse.
The utility service to the buildings to the west, which would be 3, 4, and 5, have been restored, and occupants allowed to return to the structure. That began yesterday.
And to make note, that's approximately 36 hours after this major fire. So with the efforts of a lot of city departments, we were able to get the occupants in three of those structures back in operation and back into their businesses relatively quickly.
Finally, I'd like to thank Jay Davis from the city planning department, as well as members of our public works department, and their vehicle maintenance staff.
They were on scene with us that entire evening refilling our apparatus with fuel, providing maintenance to apparatus that were having mechanical issues due to the extreme cold.
And Jay Davis was providing intelligence reports to us with regards to the layout of the structure helping us make tactical decisions with regard to how we were going to fight the fire.
With that, I'd like to introduce Assistant Chief Dan Olsen, who was our operation section chief the night of the fire, and he's also leading our fire investigation unit.

OLSEN: Good afternoon, not quite as young as Chief Kanger, so I need my readers. I'm Daniel Olsen. I'm the administrative assistant chief.  I am the ultimate supervisor of the fire investigation unit.
The unit consists of seven full-time investigators on a rotating 24-hour shift. They report to one battalion chief who reports to myself. The responsibility of the fire investigation bureau is to conduct sound and legal fire investigations into the cause and origin of any fire within city limits, including this fire.
Our goal at this investigation is to conduct interviews with related parties, and to compare the information with the information that we ultimately uncover at the scene when we are able to enter the area and conduct our scene investigation.
I’d like to explain what the fire investigators have done up to this point.
We've conducted many hours of field interviews. We've scheduled follow-up interviews.  We've photographed the scene. We'll be processing photographs and comparing that to the evidence and the testimony in the interview process, and we've reached out to several agencies for assistance.
At this time, I would also like to thank the planning department, the public works department, Douglas County 911 and our local ATF agent, who is also a trained fire investigator.
Moving forward, this investigation will consist of holding the scene, to maintain the chain of custody so that we can follow up with our field investigation process. We are going to be working with the planning department to determine the safety of the structure and the surrounding area.
And once that is evaluated by the structural engineers, we'll be able to enter and our overall goal is to determine the most probable cause of this fire.
With that said, I'd like to mention and ask for your patience during this process. This could take several weeks to determine the structural stability of the property itself, and to ultimately go in and conduct a sound and legal investigation.
I am going to ask you folks for your patience, and I assure you that as soon as this investigation is complete, I will release as many details related to the incident and the most probable cause of this fire. Thank you.

STOTHERT: Now, I would like to introduce Jay Davis, who is our chief building and code investigator.

DAVIS: Thank you, mayor. We were called in, I sent my chief building inspector down initially to help the fire department assess what was going on, how they could move through the buildings.
As the night escalated, we obviously, both my chief building inspector and myself ended up being on scene working with the fire department to determine the best way for them to enter and get in and try to attack the fire.
It was a big fire, and it was a darn cold night, too. So, none of us wanted to be there, but the good news is the building did stop where it was supposed to at the fire walls.
And because of that, it didn't go any farther down the block. Had it gone down the block farther, it might have been a whole different situation we’re talking about today.
What's happened since then? Obviously the fire investigators have control of the scene. We're working very closely with them. Today, I worked with the insurance company for the Mercer family.
We have created a fense zone, probably going up as we speak right now. It's going to be the middle of Howard street, probably most all of 11th street. We have issues to work with within the street. Andthen down the alley, as well, so nobody can get into the building or around the buildings at this time.
People are going to start to ask when can we let people back in the building? The number one building, on the corner, that's going to take a long time for us to determine. Depending on what happens with the insurance company, in the next few days, we'll know if we can start to safely let people back into the second building, which is the condo building, the restaurant and the niche store.
We're working with them, obviously, working with the fire department. We have a very good working relationship and we try to keep that that way.
Both of us shared information over the course of the fire, which probably made it a much better situation than what it would have been.  So, with that, I'll turn it over to you, mayor.

STOTHERT: Next, I'd like to introduce our public works director, Bob Stubbe.

STUBBE: The chiefs have already mentioned public works' involvement with regard to the activities that have taken place while the fire was going on.
What I want to address is with regard to the work that was going on down in that particular area. There is a project that was being done by Verizon, which is their small cellular technology project.
They have a contractor, a private network, that is installing the fiber optics for that particular technology.
They have hired a contractor to do that installation work. They have submitted to us, and we have been working with them related to the project that they've identified.
We have some drawings that we will provide to you, and again, they've hired a contractor to actually go through and install that particular work. And the contractor has also submitted a permit to the city to actually do work within the public right-of-way.

>> Murphy? That is what we have as far as a briefing goes. We welcome your questions now to any of the people standing next to me. Please identify yourself  though when you ask the question.

QUESTION: The biggest concern that I've heard, and I've talked to experts about this, is that it could be five years before anything gets renovated or rebuilt, between the finger pointing, attorneys, and insurance companies. Is there anything that the city can do to speed that process up so that structure as it is right now doesn't stay like that?

STOTHERT:  I don't necessarily believe that's the case. Dave, in fact, I just met with the Mercer  family, and we were talking about timelines, and if it is determined that the shell can be saved, they're looking at a period of approximately two years.
Jay, did you want to say something else as far as that goes?

DAVIS: That, obviously, you bring up a good point, what about attorneys, and so on? The city doesn't try to get involved in that. If everything goes as planned, we have a couple of things we're concerned about in the structure now. If we make it through the next few days with Mother Nature not causing any damage, then they can probably start to look at how we can move forward with reconstruction, they're very anxious to do that.
The insurance company is anxious to get that started. Obviously litigation is -- what litigation is.

STOTHERT: Explain what it is with Mother Nature, there's an issue if we have some thawing and freezing with all the water that's permeated the building.

DAVIS:  The fire department had to put a lot of water on the fire to put it out. And because of that, and the hot spots, the water continues to get in there. The brick is a softer brick and built with a multiple wood pattern, as they call it. Water has permeated the mortar joints and gotten in between those different joints and different levels of brick . If we have a freeze like we have, we are going to be okay. That was done the coldest nice of the year and the fire was burning extremely hot. The brick had already expanded and absorbed the water. What we have to watch out for now is how fast that freeze-thaw happens. The ice on the building now is actually acting as an insulator, and it's helping us. So when the sun went under, I started to smile a little bit. Once we can get the ice off the building, that will help even more. Our biggest concern, we had two big concerns, one is the awning on the east side of the building. There's so much water and ice on that, it has started to come down. They're working with a plan to fix that now or support it right now. On the north wall, which is truly an unsupported wall at the time being. If Mother Nature is nice to us, we're not going to have any more damage on the building. We have to be careful for that.

STOTHERT: Do you want to explain the shoring up of the awning, right in front there. What we're doing next?

DAVIS: We're going to shore the awning up, first on the east side and then as far down on the west as we deem necessary, on the south side, once that’s done and secure, we're comfortable with letting people move into the second building, or come back in and start to assess what they need to do to repair or replace their lives and get them back in order.

QUESTION: Chief Kanger, does this bother you or is it concerning to you that the first call to 911 were for the explosion and not the smell of natural gas?

KANGER: No, because we really haven't put together the timeframe yet with regards to when a natural gas odor was detected to when the actual call was placed. That's part of our investigative process right now. We don't know, we have no reports. We've been in constant communication with Douglas County 911, asking those questions.
There were no reports of natural gas leaks, or odors in that area prior to this alarm coming in.
So, we don't know when the natural gas leak, if that's what we determine actually happened, when that began, and subsequently, we know when the explosion occurred because the 911 calls had come in.
I don't know the timeframe between when a possible leak occurred and the explosion occurred, that timeframe could be extremely narrow. I don't anticipate that there was a great length of time between those two events. Because, communications through Douglas County 911, phone calls to Douglas County 911 certainly don't support that.

QUESTION:  Is it possible yet to determine if that subcontractor working on that fiber optic line hit a gas main or line in that area?

KANGER: That will be part of our ongoing investigation, That could take some time because what we need to do is actually excavate and dig around where the natural gas line is supporting that building.
And until -- right now we've probably got 10 or 12 inches of ice on top of that. And we've got that area is in the exclusion zone or the collapse zone. A couple things have to happen.
Once we get that building supported, then we can come in with heavy equipment and begin to remove that ice and actually get down to where we believe the incident occurred. And until we actually do that, I'm not comfortable making any assumptions just yet.

QUESTION: [indiscernible].

KANGER: One second. Mr. Becka.

QUESTION: It appears that the natural gas was turned off. [Indescernible] Specifically happen, a hot spot you didn't see? Any idea what caused that?

KANGER: I don't want to speculate. This is a large building, it had a pretty significant fire load, contents will burn. It did have a confirmed gas-fed fire for approximately an hour. We had the gas shut off, confirmed shut off at 4:30. That's a pretty significant lead time for the fire to take hold in a building that size. Once we -- our first priority was to cut off gas, after obviously securing -- making sure everybody in the structure was gone. Once we confirmed that, our priority was to shut the gas off. We could not let it burn and continue to leak. Once that was accomplished, it allowed us the ability to go inside, or attempt to go inside and begin to extinguish the fire. By that time, the fire gained significant headway, and conditions just got dramatically worse. In this type of structure, it's all wooden interior, the exterior is of the structure masonry. Inside is wood materials, which burn. This building was not sprinkled. It created a unique situation for us, an incredible amount of contents that could burn. And it was just simply -- it had gotten to a stage that we could not control it. Our goal then was to prevent this fire from running to the west, and impacting even more buildings. So, our goal to get everybody out safely was accomplished, and our goal to contain it to the building of origin was also accomplished.

QUESTION: One of the M’s Pub employees said she smelled the natural gas outside...[indiscernible]
Something down there, and immediately went inside and told the chef and he turned the gas off inside of M's Pub. How critical was that decision for them to turn the gas off inside? More catastrophic?

KANGER: It was a very good decision. We believe that the individual that was shutting the gas off was the individual that was subsequently injured and transported to the hospital when the explosion occurred. It probably had a very positive outcome for the other individuals that were inside M's Pub.

QUESTION: Only two people got hurt. Is that amazing considering how --

KANGER:  it's incredible. It's incredible. And in reviewing the 911 tapes, it was unanimous. Every caller said there was an explosion. We have reports of windows being blown out. We do have some people that we've been told went to the hospital and were treated with injuries that we did not transport. The fact that there was no fatalities in this event is nothing short of a miracle.

STOTHERT: Explain when - usually gas fills voids.

KANGER: Absolutely. In this type of structure, especially since the gas line was probably most likely located in the basement, sub grade, if it was leaking, that gas flow will find void spaces and look for an ignition source. The footage that you see on TV shows a pretty significant gas-fed fire in front of the structure on 11th street and fire crews applying water mainly on the building to keep it from spreading on the building. While the gas is burning, for all practical purposes, it is safer for us, we know where it is, it is not invisible. It’s not hidden. It is being consumed. If we would have extinguished that fire while we had an active gas leak, the situation would have been awful because now we would have had an ongoing gas leak with that gas trying to find another ignition source and possibly another explosion. Our efforts to get the gas shut off, which was done and protect the exposure, which we did to the best of our ability, took us a little bit of time, but it also prevented additional explosions later on.

QUESTION: Now, chief, what took so long to shut the gas off?

KANGER: I certainly can't reply to that.

QUESTION: You didn't have your hand on --

KANGER: That would be a question for the utilities district to respond to. I will say that the utilities district did an incredible job of sending resources to the scene, not only were they trying to isolate the gas by shutting off valves, they also had crews around that were monitoring air quality around the entire structure. So, the question with regards to timeframe would be best suited for the utility district.

QUESTION: And I know you can't say what  that cause was... You did have a 911 callers...natural gas line...call came from a man from outside the M's Pub restaurant …fire happened be consistent with natural gas having been broken?

KANGER: What I can confirm, unequivocally, is there was construction taking place in front of that structure, and that we did have a gas-fed fire. At some point, gas service to that building had been compromised resulting in a gas leak and the subsequent fire that occurred. How that occurred, and who's responsible for that occurring will be part of our investigation.

QUESTION: This is probably a good question for Jay. When you have a construction permit, and you're digging in the city of Omaha, as far as the crews doing the actual work, is there protocol as far as who called 911, who called for help when they think there could have been a gas line break, or gas line issue?

DAVIS: I'm not sure I can answer that question necessarily. I don't deal with utility contractors. Any of the contractors we deal with working on construction sites, if they think or know, they usually instigate the 011 call themselves. Again, i don't know the situation here, whether they did, didn't, or how it happened. I couldn't answer that for you.

STOTHERT: You might mention, too, before they start digging, they find where the utilities are.

DAVIS: They did do their locate. They located utilities that were in the street down there. They knew where gas was and where water was. So, from that point, we don't know.
QUESTION:  But did you know, if they do hit a line were they legally obligated to call 9-1-1 as soon as possible to warn people around that area?

DAVIS: I couldn't answer that question.

STOTHER: The city attorney…

DAVIS: You're obligated as an excavator to call the 811 system, 24 hours in advance. Common sense would tell you you have to do it, whether it's a law or not, I couldn't tell you.

QUESTION: What are you supposed to do if you smell natural gas?

DAVIS: Call 9-1-1.

QUESTION: For this particular subcontractors, a contractor, and a subcontractors, do they have to have some type of distinguishable certification to work in certain neighborhoods, obviously this is an old neighborhood, do they have to have certain certifications?

STUBBE: Typically, what we end up doing, again in this particular case, it was Unite private network, that we have an agreement with, an overall agreement, because the agreement that we have with Unite is that they have the ability to install fiber within the city of Omaha. And part of that agreement that we have with them is that if they can share our conduit, then the city of Omaha gets part of that fiber at no cost to the city.
We have an overall agreement with them related to that. And then they also have a responsibility from the standpoint of a contractor that's working for them, and again, that contractor that's working for them has to essentially get a permit from us to excavate within the public right-of-way, which this particular contractor did do.

QUESTION: Is there anything different about the kind of gas lines that would be in the area of town like that versus somewhere like a new development. Are they made out of something different, more brittle? What's the infrastructure like underneath that sidewalk compared to newer areas of town?

DAVIS: I guess if you look at it, you've got an area of town that's hundreds of years old, and you've got new areas, yeah, they are different. Now, had they upgraded those lines at some point, I don't know that. Maybe there's some older still black pipe that they're using for gas line versus what they use in the subdivision. There's always that assumption. We don't know until the fire investigators are done, we'll have a much better idea of what's under there.

QUESTION: Before you dig, did the contractor check? [indiscernible]

DAVIS: I understand that MUD had actually gone out prior date to that and had marked the gas and water line for them. So they were both marked.

QUESTION: Mayor, you mentioned that you spoke to...if you could just reflect on how crippling this will be to the old market, to have a stretch blocked off and these businesses no longer in there for the time being?

STOTHERT: Amazingly, Mr. Mercer, Mark, was in very good spirits today. Of course it's devastating to him and his wife and all people in the surrounding area. As I said before, he has the goal to rebuild, as much as they could save, he wants to save, which, if they could do the shell, he was very concerned with the surrounding businesses. Mr. Davis mentioned it earlier, we're going to -- where the streets are blocked off now, I think pretty immediately, as we are sitting here now, they are decreasing that amount, that is totally blocked off. So hopefully very soon, within, I believe he said the next couple days.

DAVIS:  By Friday.

STOTHERT: By Friday, that we could get those that occupy the condominiums to the west of there back in to their units, to See what's going on in there. There's going to be probably a lot of water and smoke damage. But at least they can get back in, as well as the restaurant area. Hopefully we can get them back by the end of the week, into those. As far as rebuilding, like I said, there's a lot of things that have to be dealt with first. The insurance company that Mr. Mercer has is already working on it. And he said just a few minutes ago that he felt like it could be a matter of a couple years. But, he wants to rebuild it, and he wants to move forward.
QUESTION: Where it is, and now going to block off streets, what kind of social, cultural lots is it for the city and

the Old Market district?
STOTHERT: Like I do, everybody loves the Old Market, and what we want to do is to try to keep that negative impact as small as we possibly can. Jams has been reopened, Stokes has reopened. Upstream is reopened. That means their utilities, obviously, have been restored. And so I got to give a lot of credit to all that have been working on this, public works, the utilities, companies, in Omaha, to get those buildings open again and get the utilities restored. As Chief Kanger said, in less than, what is it now, chief, 34, 35 hours, a lot has been done already, a lot has been achieved. But we still have those main buildings that were affected by the fire that we need to shore up and get in there to really find out what's going on. So I think a lot has been achieved in a very short period of time. But, of course, the best Interest of those that live there, that work there, that, you know, we wanted to get them back to normalcy as soon as we can.
And I will say this, Mr. Mercer wanted me to say that – how appreciative he is of everyone and their support. He said everyone has been reaching out from the businesses downtown to the entire community asking that question. I don't know what I can do, but let me know if there's anything I can do because I want to help. And he wanted me to relay that he's very, very appreciative of all the help, and all the helping hand that have been reaching out, to him and the businesses.

QUESTION: Is there any chance that the people who lived above those businesses will ever get back in there to see if there's anything left of their lives?

STOTHERT:  I think those that lived above M's, which is Mr. Mercer and his wife, that's pretty much destroyed. I do think, those 12 units, I believe 12 that are to the west of there, yeah, you know, there's smoke damage, and there's fire damage. But, as far as that goes, a lot of their property is still in there. And we just need to hopefully get it arranged soon by the end of the week that they can get back in there and evaluate what their property is and be able to get in and out, too, easily. Rose ann.

QUESTION: Fire and permits, can you walk me through...going forward, what your timeline is?

OLSEN: The investigation process is a lot, very similar to what the police department would conduct. Our investigators are cross-trained police officers. Our goal is to map out a plan, and we did that this morning. We had a conference this morning with all the investigators and the related players. And we develop a plan, and we move forward with that. Right now, that plan consists mainly of conducting interviews, as I mentioned in my introduction. And eventually, once the scene is determined safe, we'll be able to get in there and conduct our field investigation, which is going to consist of excavating, and hopefully getting into the building at some point and investigating on the interior and the basement. That's our ultimate goal. We conduct those functions and put everything together, and hopefully that will lead us to a legitimate, we can describe it was the most probable cause of this fire.

QUESTION: [indiscernible].

OLSEN: Well, I have a little bit of experience in this area.  Unfortunately, I was involved in the Butternut fire investigation and the Jobber's Canyon investigation. Unfortunately, the Butternut fire, we were never able to get into the building due to the danger. And that's possible in this case, certainly hope it's not. Our ultimate goal is always to get in and do a hands-on investigation, we're hoping that's the case with this fire. But, yes, it could take, you know, if we excavate the suspected area that we're interested in now, and that gives us the answers that we need, it could be over fairly quickly. If we have to wait for the building to be shored up, and made structurally sound before we can enter the basement, and dig through four stories of debris, which we will attempt to do, if possible, which we have done in the past, it could take weeks to months. It's hard to estimate the time. A typical fire investigation on a normal structure fire can last years, believe it or not. So, it all depends on which direction the investigation takes us.

QUESTION: [indiscernible].

OLSEN: In the building,  The actual -- no, we did not. We have been in the adjacent buildings, the building to the west and assessed the damage in the buildings.

QUESTION: In the condo building?

OLSEN: I'm not quite sure what the name is, but, yes, right next door. The five-story right next door,
Yes, we have. And we were able to retrieve a couple of the companion cats that were located in one of the apartments which was a concern to one of those residents, and they were just fine. They were reunited, and gave them some water and reunited them with her. So there is a positive story.

QUESTION: [indiscernible].

OLSEN: I do not. That would be a question for the humane society or the owner. We'll do our best to conduct a thorough legal investigation. It does take some time. You have to understand this cCould lead to hundreds of interviews. And that's why we've -- I mentioned the ATF's assistance. They have a trained investigators that works with us frequently. And that individual, we contact that individual for large dollar loss fires. It's a requirement. So, we'll bring that individual in, and we've already identified which investigators is going to interview the related parties, And then we compile all that information, and what we do is compare that information from the interview process, what they saw, what they told us, the videos that the witnesses took we'll retrieve all of those, process those, and then we compare that to what we see when we dig into the ground or dig through that basement. And our ultimate goal is to determine the point of origin, the exact point of where the fire originated, and that will allow us to determine, to change the status from under investigation to either accidental, or what it could be.

QUESTION: [indiscernible] you said you've done a bunch of interviews already.

OLSEN: We have interviewed the contractor. There was a field interview of the contractor the day of the fire. And there is an ongoing interview as we speak this afternoon with that individual as well. Now, the owner of that -- of the contractor service, the fiber optics service is on his way to town now. But we have an investigator that's in an ongoing interview as we speak with the sub contractor.

QUESTION: Were they cooperative?

OLSEN: Yes.

QUESTION: Is it unusual, took more than an hour...

OLSEN: I'm not going to speak on that. I can't speak on behalf of MUD. You have to understand that -- I'm not going to speak on that. I don't feel it's my place to speak on it. I'll stick to the investigation questions.

QUESTION: Is that common...?

OLSEN: No.

QUESTION: [indiscernible].

KANGER: Yes, I can. I've been in discussions with the 911 last night and today, and I can definitively say that there were no calls for gas leaks or an odor of gas prior to the first call that was received by the dispatch center, which was approximately 2:50 p.m.

QUESTION: And that call was to report an explosion and fire.

KANGER: Correct.

QUESTION: Was there any -- was there ever any calls reporting a gas odor, or bad odor?

KANGER: There are reports to me, and these questions certainly would be better directed to the director of the 911 communication center.

[Excerpt]

QUESTION: Are you an aware that fiber optics is doing any other work in the city, right now somewhere else.

STUBBE: Yes, they are.  It is a company that we've had a long standing agreement with, and so they have multiple projects that are going on throughout the Omaha area. So, yes, this is not the only location where they are working.

QUESTION: The contractor -- the way we understand is unite was the General contractor, and...north Central Service was actually on the scene, their trucks can be seen there during the fire...who was doing the work?

STUBBE: Typically Unite is the one that we have an agreement with with regard to fiber optics within the Omaha metro area. So they are the provider of the fiber optics, and normally, they hire out and hire a subcontractor to actually do the physical installation of that fiber in the ground.

QUESTION: [indiscernible].

STUBBE: That was the contractor in this case, yes.

QUESTION: When you say that field interviews were conducted...going on now with the contractors, which contractors...?

OLSEN: There will be interviews with both contractors. The interview that's going on today is with the subcontractor.

QUESTION: With North Central?

OLSEN: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: [indiscernible]...describe...

DAVIS: First of all, our job is to keep the fire investigators safe. So we work pretty closely with them. We evaluate the structure itself to see if there's anything we have to be concerned about whether they can go in or not go in. And this morning i sat down with fire investigators and we determine what parts of the building we have to shore up before they can even go in to even work out in the street.
We're worried about vibration and things like that. Once we've established that, then it's our job to then work with the structural part of the building as we move forward with the owner as they rebuild, make sure the plans are to code, and of course, the inspections are done to code throughout the process.
Right now, we work hand in hand with the fire department both as an advisory position during the event and then afterwards with their fire investigators to make sure nobody gets hurt. That's our primary job up front.

QUESTION: Do you deem it unsafe...ice falls, and that sort of thing? [indiscernible]?

DAVIS:  If it is deemed unsafe and unsalvageable, unfortunately, the only option is to demolish the building. I don’t want to talk about that yet because maybe with the weather cooperating this week, we don't have to worry about that. Certainly we don't want to see that building torn down. It's in an area where everybody recognizes that part of Omaha. That's kind of a signature for us. And obviously the Mercers don't want to lose that building either.  Hopefully we don't ever have to use that "d" word. We just don't like to do that.

QUESTION: Would it make a difference that it is a historical building in terms of trying to find the "d" word, demolish, that you have to go through...it would be a historical building?

DAVIS: Sadly, if it's beyond physical repair and a danger to others, no, we don't. At that point, we have to tear it down for public safety reasons.

STOTHERT: I might mention that Mr. Mercer did say that not only did he want to preserve and rebuild the building, if possible, that M's wants to rebuild, too, and reopen. They would like to reopen in that same spot if possible.

QUESTION: [indiscernible].

STOTHERT: Any incentives? TIF

QUESTION: [indiscernible]…at the fire scene...maybe we haven't thought to ask yet. In the building, were there working smoke alarms? Sprinklers, anything about the fire control system within the building?

 

KANGER:  There is a smoke detector system, there is not sprinklers. There is not a sprinkler system in that building.

[indiscernible].  Yes, they were.

KANGER: It reinforces the fact that there's a need for those systems. I guess the testament is that everybody made it out of that structure safely. And we had no fatalities. So, the systems acted as they were supposed to.

QUESTION: Were sprinklers required?

KANGER: That would be a question for our codes folks. But my guess is, absolutely not. If a building is required to have sprinklers, we would not let them open up. So I would say, no, they were not required to have sprinklers.

DAVIS: If I can, chief. At the current time they don't require sprinklers, new construction will. As we move forward, it has been a topic of conversation for years, do we look at putting sprinklers in the old buildings in the old market. The new code starts to move us in that direction. As we adopt new code, we may have to look at that, same with the fire code it also addresses that.
At this time, no, but when the rebuild goes back, yes, they will have sprinklers in there. Renovations have been done down the line on those buildings that have required putting sprinklers being put into them, as well. That helps us a lot.

STOTHERT: I’d also like to mention, considering the age of these buildings down there, Mr. Mercer was a big help the other night. Chief Olsen said that he was down there with blueprints of that building. And because of him having the blueprints, it really helped the firefighters determine where the fire walls were, et cetera. So, he was a big help at helping them attack this fire.

QUESTION: You said these were some of the worst conditions that you've seen, where does this rank as far as  being the worst fire you've seen or dealt with here in the city?

KANGER: For me, personally in my 24-plus years, Butternut would probably be number one, and this would be number two. Both were very similar, same type of construction, Butternut was a much larger building. But the weather conditions were brutal. It was -- I believe when i left the scene, or when we left the scene at operational 12:30 that evening, it was registering about 6 below zero, not including the windchill. So it was a brutal night. I'm extremely proud of the men and women of the Omaha Fire Department that were working, because it was a testament to their heartiness to be able to work through those types of conditions, overcome adversity. We had mechanical issues just due to the cold weather. We use water to put fires out and water doesn't and work very well when it's frozen. So, we had a lot of things to overcome. We were able to do it with the help of our city partners, and our city of Omaha private partners. And despite the fact that one building is a loss right now, with the efforts to possibly rebuild it, we had no fatalities, we had no firefighter fatalities, we were wble to stop that fire from moving any further.

QUESTION:  How did the firefighters manage...in that cold? Frostbite?

KANGER: We had one cold-related injury, and that was the injury that broke their hand slipping on the ice. We had a number of slips and falls. But, this is what we do. We do it in cold, in heat, and it doesn't really matter. They are very professional group of people. I'm extremely proud of the efforts they put forth. Not just that day, but every single day.

STOTHERT: Might want to mention the businesses that opened up for the fire.

KANGER: Again, our Old Market partners, the community partners down there, the Hyatt Place Hotel opened up their lobby, Scooters remained open after hours as a rehab center. Upstream Brewery was providing food. Subway was providing food. A lot of people, individuals were just coming from the quick shops with boxes of Gatorade or coffee for us, they didn't want to be named. They didn't tell us who they were working with or for. These were just people that were coming out of their apartments or watching it on the news and were bringing things down to help. Not only my folks, but everybody that was working. And, again, I can't say enough about the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Those -- that's a 100 percent volunteer force that comes out and helps not only us, but the Red Cross works with all of the displaced occupants to find them shelter, and housing, as well. So we've got a lot of great partners in this community.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We're going to take two more, folks.

QUESTION: Chief, during your investigation, I know it's early, and everything, is there any suspicion about this fire?

KANGER: Right now, everything is leaning towards an accidental fire. But until we conclude all of the investigations and we can get to that point of origin, it will be listed as undetermined. But right now, we have no indications that this was anything but an accidental fire. Anything else?
Thank you all.