WINDOM — A massive ball of flame erupted from a natural gas main buried under West 60th Street just east of Nicollet Avenue at about 8:40 a.m. Thursday, and the surrounding area was evacuated until the fire was extinguished at about 10:30 a.m.
Witnesses described flames shooting three to four stories high directly in front of the Cub Foods at 5937 Nicollet Ave. S. Nearby I-35W and Highway 62 were temporarily closed, but only an exit ramp from southbound I-35W to West 60th Street remained closed at noon.
Minneapolis Fire Chief Cherie Penn said crews first responded to reports of an explosion at 8:41 a.m. Area hospitals were put on alert, but no injuries were reported.
“There was an initial explosion, and right about the time I arrived on scene there was a second explosion,” Penn said.
Juan Cortez was working at the nearby Cub Foods, 5937 Nicollet Ave., when the first explosion occurred. The grocery store closed just after 8:40 a.m., as smoke began entering the building, Cortez said.
“They couldn’t handle it [the smoke],” he said. “First you could smell the gas, but once the flames started it was like…a huge burner.”
He said the fire appeared to be coming from “a small hole in the street” near the intersection of 60th and Nicollet. Cortez thought that some cars parked near the Cub Foods might have caught on fire, as he reported hearing “popping” noises coming from the parking lot.
CenterPoint Energy spokesperson Becca Virden a large perimeter established by police and fire crews was reduced by 11 a.m. to the immediate vicinity of the Cub Foods. Virden did not describe the incident as an “explosion,” the term used by city officials.
“At this time it’s too early to speculate as to the cause of the incident,” Virden said. “We will know more as the investigation continues.”
She said CenterPoint Energy cut off gas to the area, but she did not know how many homes or businesses were affected.
“I think the most important thing to know for residents is the safety of them and their property is our top priority,” she said.
Siblings Felipe and Hazel Rosas, who live in an apartment at 127 E. 59th St. with their mother Elva, said that electricity went out in their home at about the same time the fire started. Felipe Rosas showed video of the fire captured on his cell phone that appeared to show flames shooting three to four stories into the air.
The Rosas were among the nearby residents evacuated when police and fire crews established a large perimeter around the fire. They waited at Nicollet Avenue South and West 54th Street until they were allowed to return home at about 11 a.m.
Minneapolis Public Schools reported students at Windom Spanish Dual Immersion School, 5821 Wentworth Ave. S, were evacuated to nearby Kenny Community School. Kenny, along with Anthony Middle School and Armatage Montessori School, were placed on code-yellow lockdown, the district reported.
Classes were continuing as usual, but students would be kept inside the rest of the day, the district reported.