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Smoke billows from a window on the east side of the Hotel Pathfinder after the explosion in 1976. The sign visible between puffs of smoke reads "Fireproof." Eighteen people died in the blast and two more died of injuries later. Many others were hurt. -- Tribune File Photo

Larnce Hopkins always had an interest in disasters.

Not with gruesome details of the tragedies, but with stories of how people survived and the resilience of the human spirit. So the Fairfax, Va. man began writing a book about explosions that occurred throughout the United States.

One catastrophe especially caught his attention: the natural gas explosion that occurred Jan. 10, 1976, at the Hotel Pathfinder in Fremont. What began research for a chapter for his book evolved into enough information for an entire book.

And that's what Hopkins plans to do: Write a book about those affected when a natural gas explosion ripped through the historic six-story hotel, killing 20 people and injuring dozens more. Since he began working on the book, Hopkins has interviewed about 70 people, mostly from the Fremont area. He has been touched and heartened by their stories -- and believes their experiences can provide hope for Americans, especially in light of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Every time a disaster happens, we feel so alone. And when we read about something like this, we can understand we're not alone in our situation," Hopkins, 37, said during a telephone interview.

The Sept. 11 tragedy stunned Hopkins. Hopkins is an equal employment opportunity assistant for the Defense Legistics Agency in Washington D.C. He was out of town visiting family when terrorists flew a passenger plane into the Pentagon. He returned to heightened security and an anthrax scare and for a time just didn't have the heart to work on the book.

"I'm like millions of other people. This affected me profoundly. I'm a federal government worker and that makes us chief targets of terrorism," he said. "I'm just now finding the heart to go back (to the project.)"

Work on the book will mean contacting a few more people before he begins writing, something he anticipates will take a while.

But Hopkins is patient.

Having visited Fremont twice, Hopkins has pored over newspaper clippings and photographs of the disaster. During his research, he has interviewed survivors, witnesses, firefighters, police, businesspeople, current and former members of city government and those who lost family members in the tragedy.

He strives to be compassionate while gathering details of that horrific day.

"When I set out to do this I had a twofold goal," he said. "I believe strongly in being accurate and honest and fair in what you write, confirming (information). That's something I'm very keen on doing.

"The other goal was to treat people with respect … They say time heals all wounds, and maybe that's true, but people don't forget. Whether it's 25 or 35 years later, memories are still very strong for people and it may have happened a long time ago, but it's very painful to talk out and experience."

So Hopkins has tread carefully when asking if people would talk to him for his book and then while interviewing them.

The results have been good.

Some people declined to be interviewed, a decision Hopkins said he respects. Most people, however, have been willing to talk about what happened.

"I count myself very lucky that so many current and former residents of Fremont have been willing to open up and talk to me," he said.

Hopkins also considers his work a privilege.

"I feel very lucky to be at this time and place to preserve the story of what happened," he said. "It was a very powerful event for Fremont and it played a significant part in the history of your community. It's important for people to read about this years from now."

Hopkins even had some unexpected help while doing research at Keene Memorial Library in Fremont. Students in the library asked what he was reading. When he mentioned the Pathfinder explosion, they urged him to contact a teacher who had told them about the tragedy. The teacher knew someone whose mother was in the hotel at the time of the explosion.

Through the teacher, Hopkins was able to contact the woman -- someone he'd given up hope of finding.

As work on his book progresses, Hopkins continues to be inspired by those whose lives were changed by the Pathfinder explosion. He hopes his future readers will be inspired as well.

"Every disaster teaches a lesson. I (hope) people come away with knowing what happened, seeing how Fremont dealt with this and dealt with it as well as they did," he said.


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