Patty Sutton remembers Jan. 10, 1976, all too well.
She was part of a women’s PEO group preparing for a musical program to celebrate Founders’ Day at the Pathfinder Hotel in downtown Fremont.
She was a passenger in a car driven by Joanne Lemons, who was also in the program. The two were on their way to a rehearsal, but the rehearsal never took place.
Joanne had initially parked her car on Broad Street in front of the former police station, now the Historic Fremont Visitors Center, but noticed the parking meter was limited to 30 minutes. Patty said they both knew they’d need to be there longer than that.
So Joanne moved the car about a block down the street near the Love-Larson Opera House, in front of a former location of the Vienna Bakery.
What happened next changed the face of Fremont’s downtown.
“We were getting out of the car when the explosion took place,” Patty said. “Joanne was getting something out of the back seat on the driver’s side, and I was standing on the other side of the car. When I heard the explosion I jumped under the car. I thought it was a bomb just because of the explosion.”
A natural gas leak at the hotel fueled the explosion that occurred around 9:30 a.m. that Saturday.
Fremont Tribune reports indicated that the explosion killed 20 people.
Patty was protected from flying debris by the car. Joanne wasn’t as lucky.
“Joanne got hit in the head with some of the flying debris,” Patty said. “She could still walk. She walked to the sidewalk and laid down. I rode with her to the hospital. She was in bad shape. I wasn’t hurt at all.”
Joanne’s son, Doug, said she received multiple skull fractures and nearly died in surgery after the explosion.
“She was in the hospital quite a long time,” Doug said.
Patty’s husband, Jack, was several blocks away.
“We were having friends coming in from out of state that night,” he said. “I was at Denny’s (Liquor Store) buying some wine. Some guy had walked into Denny’s when I was there and said there had been a hell of an explosion. He said it blew him off the bar stool at The Trading Post. That was a bar next to The Pathfinder Hotel. I looked over there and saw this big light and smoke.
“Then I went uptown. They had so much help there. All of the rural fire departments were there. It was a mess.”
Across town at the Fremont Mall, Ken Walter was working at a Parks and Recreation Department booth with Les Gidddens explaining the department’s programs, signing up people for different programs and showing examples of some of the crafts that are made in the programs.
Walter, who was then the department’s recreation superintendent, said the two were confused when they heard the noise.
“We thought a car hit the mall,” he said. “It made the whole mall shake and actually broke out some windows.”
They were able to hear what was going on from reports given over a CB radio at Walgreen’s Drug Store that was at the mall then.
“The report came over the radio that there had been an explosion at the Pathfinder, and it looked like there was fire on all of the floors and people trapped,” Walter said. “We decided that our bucket truck could be of assistance in helping rescue people trapped up there.”
They took the department’s bucket truck to the burning hotel and called someone skilled at operating it.
“Several people were pulled out of the fire from that,” Walter said.
Walter and Jack Sutton said that one event permanently changed downtown Fremont.
The basement of the hotel stretched underneath the sidewalks, Walter said. The explosion blew sections of the sidewalk out, some of which came down on people walking nearby.
Part of the debris blew up in the air, blowing across the street and over Joanne Lemons’ car into the Vienna Bakery.
“It was an awful mess,” Sutton said. “It was a horrible tragedy.”