An explosion and fire destroyed the Hotel Pathfinder in Fremont on January 10, 1976, killing 18 people. Here is a collection of stories about the tragic event.
Honoring those lost in blast 40 years ago
Like other days, Marla Cone went to work at Brown Drug Store inside the large Hotel Pathfinder.
The 20-year-old wife and mother was waiting on a customer, when she heard people talking about a natural gas odor. Soon, she and others were told to evacuate the building. Cone was going to get her purse and coat that very cold morning, when the phone rang. Pharmacy tech Delores Fritz went to answer the phone.
An explosion tore through the hotel.
“I never made it to my purse or my coat,” Cone said.
Across the street, Chris and Tom Rump were getting ready to have breakfast at the nearby Jensen’s Café on Broad Street.
“We were waiting on our brother, Jeff,” Tom remembered.
Chris was inside the family business, Rump’s Furnace and Hardware, with his dad, Bill, and secretary Hazel Hunsucker.
Suddenly, the explosion threw Chris about 8 feet into a wall. The ceiling dropped.
Tom was in an alley behind the building unloading a truck when the horrific blast rocked the area.
“I was dodging bits of sidewalk and street lamps and brick and all kinds of stuff,” said Tom, who jumped in the truck’s cab to escape the falling debris.
Judy Nelson-Rohrig had dropped her son off at her grandma’s house. She’d planned to pick up some Christmas photographs at Brown Drug Store, where her mom Delores Fritz worked.
Nelson-Rohrig forgot about the pictures.
“Otherwise, I would have been at the drug store with my mom and Marla (Cone),” she said.
Instead, she went straight to work at the Nelson Upholstery shop at Fourth and H streets.
She wasn’t there more than three minutes when the explosion occurred, shaking the store’s windows. Even in the brutally cold winter weather, she hurried outside.
“At that time, you could see the debris in the sky,” she said. “I ran down Fourth Street to Broad Street and looked and I could see the hotel. It looked like a war zone.”
On that miserable day, Boyd Hammond and his wife, Louise, co-owners of the hotel, were getting ready to attend the funeral of their 24-year-old daughter Ann, who’d been murdered in Lincoln by her husband, Todd Hoppes.
Then came a phone call from Fremont friend and neighbor “Boney” Schafersman.
“I hate to tell you this, but your hotel just blew up,” Schafersman said.
Four decades after a natural gas explosion ripped through the stately six-story Hotel Pathfinder, Fremonters still remember details of that terrible Saturday. Many people were affected by the tragedy which occurred at 9:32 a.m. Jan. 10, 1976. Twenty people lost their lives due to the blast and dozens more were injured.
No one knows what ignited the blast, but Hammond told the Tribune years later that a coupling popped off an underground plastic pipe (which had contracted each year as it froze during the winters), allowing gas to seep through the dirt under the street and into the hotel.
When the building exploded, the blast soared up through the elevator and mushroomed on the sixth floor, said former fireman Don Sawyer in a 1999 account.
Much of the hotel’s first two floors, which included the barbershop, drug store, lobby, lounge, dining room, ballroom and business offices, fell into the basement.
The blast flung debris in the air and chunks of concrete were blown into the street. Smoke engulfed the hotel. Surrounding buildings were heavily damaged.
In a 1976 story, Fremont Tribune wire editor Bob Berggren described the scene this way:
“Flames billow out the west door of the hotel. It isn’t a door anymore, but a large gaping black hole. Firemen run back and forth …. on about the fourth or fifth floor, there is this head, this face in the window that appears and then disappears behind the billowing smoke.
“‘They’re coming!’ you shout, but you can’t tell if she hears you.
‘‘Four men rush by with a ladder … A policeman stumbles on broken glass covering a piece of concrete about four feet square … the (Vienna) bakery is across the street … Most of the front of the bakery is blown in … a few doughnuts with colored frosting lie on the sidewalk….”
Cone, who’d been in the drug store, ended up in the basement in a pile of rubble.
“How I got out of it, I don’t know,” she said. “…I knew I’d broken my leg.
“I heard the firetrucks coming and in my mind I had to get to higher ground. With the water coming in (from the hoses), I thought, ‘I don’t want to drown.’ So I made it to this old heat register … I was on that,” she said.
People had begun calling for help.
“I heard screaming,” Cone said. “Everybody was yelling, ‘Help me, help me!’
“And one of those voices was obviously mine.”
In the hardware store, Bill Rump had been thrown to the floor. The World War II veteran later said it sounded like a bomb had detonated.
Chris Rump recalled the explosion in a 2001 Tribune story.
“It hit, like a sonic boom and a freight train hitting you in slow motion,” he said. “First, a deafening bang, followed by a concussion that picked me up and threw me in the air into a wall 8 feet away.”
Chris Rump made his way to the front of the store to help his father pull Hunsucker out from under the fallen ceiling. Chris walked out of the front of the store.
“The eerie silence was incredible,” he recently recalled. “There was just nothing. There wasn’t a bird or anything. Zero.
“It was absolutely crazy.”
The silence would be broken by weak voices crying out from the hotel’s upper floors, where apartments were. People stood in the blown out windows pleading for help.
Tom Rump went to a girder and began pulling people out of the basement. Chris went over to help. They pulled six or seven or more people out. One woman sat on the girder and cried.
“We couldn’t get her to move,” Chris said.
In the basement, Cone waited for help.
“I could barely see,” she said. “My eyes were singed.”
Her long hair, which had extended to her back, was now singed up to her shoulders. She would tell rescuers that her leg was broken.
Soon, men came down a ladder. Her leg was wrapped in a splint.
“We’ve got to hurry,” the men said. “It could explode again.”
Cone wrapped her arms around the neck of a rescuer, who got her up the ladder and into a rescue squad. Another woman, JoAnn Lemons, injured in the blast was in the squad, too.
“She was screaming,” Cone said.
Once at the local hospital, a doctor cleaned up Cone’s leg.
“They said it looked like I’d been through a meat grinder,” she said.
Cone had a broken left ankle, a compound fracture in her left leg, second and third burns on her face and arms.
Earlier that morning, Marv Welstead was getting ready to go to his office in the Equitable Federal building. He heard the explosion from a hallway in his house. A man working for Welstead called and said the hotel had exploded.
Welstead’s former employer, Mrs. Will Rowe, had an apartment on the hotel’s fourth floor. Welstead and his wife, Jean, went to Fifth Street and Park Avenue. There, they saw the smoke billowing out from Rowe’s apartment window.
“I said to Jean, ‘Let’s head for the emergency room at the hospital,” Welstead recalled.
At the hospital, they saw the first ambulance arrive with Leona Puls from Vienna Bakery. A nurse kept asking the woman’s name, but she couldn’t respond. Welstead told the nurse the woman’s name.
“Do you know these people?” the nurse asked Welstead.
“Yes,” he said.
“You stay right here,” the nurse said.
And from that morning until about 2 p.m., Welstead remained, identifying people as they came to the emergency room via ambulances.
Mrs. Rowe, he would learn, had been washing hand towels in a kitchen sink when the explosion occurred.
“She put a hand towel on her face and crawled on the floor behind the sofa until she heard the firemen in the halls and they took her down in a cherry picker,” Welstead recalled.
When she came to the hospital, she was sooty. Jean Welstead and a nurse cleaned her up and later took her to a relative’s house.
Nelson-Rohrig, who ran to the area after the blast, remembers seeing curtains flying out of windows and hearing older people on top floors screaming for help. Her mother had been in the drug store at the time of the explosion.
“I knew at that point she probably would never make it out alive,” Nelson-Rohrig said.
She contacted her two sisters and two brothers.
“We ended up at the hospital. Somebody had told us, ‘We saw your mom. They took her to the hospital,’” Nelson-Rohrig remembered.
So the siblings – all in their 20s—sat in a waiting room.
“We waited and we waited … We thought there was hope that she would have made it,” she said.
But eventually, the siblings were sent home.
Welstead was at the hospital when Lloyd Sexton and the Rev. John Swearingin learned that their wives had been killed.
“They were in shock,” he said.
Hammond, the hotel owner, later described his own disbelief. First, the Hammonds had lost their only child—their petite, hazel-eyed daughter, whose body was found Jan. 7 under ice in Lincoln’s Pawnee Lake.
Now, they’d also lost their business, along with friends and acquaintances, who had died.
“I was beyond shock, because I was already in shock from my daughter,” he said in a Tribune article 25 years after the explosion.
Boyd’s business partner, Wally Loerch, drove him to the site.
Cone would be transported to what was then Omaha’s Clarkson Hospital, where she was in an intensive care unit for a week. She would be in the hospital for nine weeks total.
“I was in traction because of a compound fracture above my left knee,” Cone said.
At eight weeks, Cone was put in a body cast from her chest to her ankle. After her time in the hospital, she was brought home to Fremont by ambulance, where she stayed in a hospital bed in her living room and needed 24-hour care.
She and her husband’s daughter, Carrie, was turned 1 year old on Jan. 11 – just a day after the explosion.
Rohrig-Nelson and her siblings, continued to wait, wondering if their mother was in the basement in water from the fire hoses.
They would wait three days.
“It was Tuesday when they finally found her,” Nelson-Rohrig said. “She was in the basement with Marla (Cone).”
About 25 years later Nelson-Rohrig was told that her mother _ who’d gone back to answer the telephone – still had it in her hand when she was found. She had burns, but probably never felt anything because of the explosion.
Fritz’s children identified their mother by a charm bracelet with pictures of her grandchildren.
The young siblings planned their mom’s funeral. Fritz, a single mom, who worked full time, had been a good mother and grandmother.
“She was a tremendous role model for her five kids,” said daughter, Terry Rohloff. “She loved the grandkids and spent time with them. She was always there for us.”
“We ate together almost every Sunday,” Rohrig-Nelson added. “We had a really close family.”
The family has stayed close.
A quarter century after the explosion, Hammond, now deceased, was then 82 when he told the Tribune how he believed his faith help his wife and him through those horrible times.
“We had a lot of faith in God and did a lot of praying,” he said, adding that they’d forgiven the man who murdered their daughter. “You can’t live with that hate. If I’d been bitter, I wouldn’t be here.”
Forty years later, Cone still walks with a limp. She is legally blind in her right eye, injured by a piece of glass.
JoAnn Lemons, the woman in the ambulance, died in 2015.
Her obituary recorded this: “She survived many obstacles including colon cancer, and the Hepatitis C outbreak in Fremont, but was unable to completely survive the Pathfinder Hotel explosion in 1976 where she suffered multiple and severe skull fractures and traumatic brain trauma. The continued effect of those injuries ultimately led her to (residing in) the area skilled care facilities.”
Bill Rump also has since died, but his sons still recall the day of the explosion.
Welstead still remembers plans made to build another hotel at the site of the Pathfinder, but how they never became reality.
The explosion changed the look of the downtown area. Some buildings in the area were torn down after the blast and others reduced in size. The north side of Fremont Opera House on Broad Street was repaired. The third story of the building that houses the Fremont Area Art Association was removed as was the second story of the Rumps’ building.
In August 1999, the National Fire Protection Association listed the Hotel Pathfinder explosion as the deadliest blaze in Nebraska in the 20th century. The hotel stood for 14 months before it was torn down.
“That was painful to see that building shell,” Nelson-Rohrig said. “For the longest time, I wouldn’t even go downtown.”
Some good did come out of the tragedy. Nelson-Rohrig said she feels more for others when they lose a loved one. She added something else:
“I think it brought the town a lot closer together.”
Monument erected honoring Pathfinder victims
At least 200 people gathered inside Gallery 92 West on Sunday afternoon for an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Hotel Pathfinder explosion, and to honor the 20 people who lost their lives due to the blast.
Following a brief ceremony, the crowd moved outside into the frigid weather to witness the unveiling of a 5-foot-tall monument erected in the city-owned green space at Sixth and Broad streets.
Etched into the black granite pillar are the names of those who lost their lives when a natural gas explosion ripped through the six-story Hotel Pathfinder building. In addition to the 20 people who perished, dozens more were injured and eight other buildings were destroyed, said Marv Welstead, who spoke during the ceremony.
“It has changed the skyline of Fremont forever,” Welstead said. “Losing those eight buildings really changed the way Fremont looks.”
In early 2015, a committee was formed to develop a plan to build a memorial in honor of those who died. The committee partnered with MainStreet of Fremont, Inc., to assist in the project and to enable donations for the project to be tax deductible.
Many family members of those who perished were present for the ceremony and monument unveiling.
One of those people was Judy Fritz Nelson-Rohrig. Nelson Rohrig’s mother, Delores Fritz, died in the accident.
Nelson-Rohrig recalled with teary eyes arriving at the scene shortly after the flames and smoke shot into the sky at 9:32 a.m.
“It looked like a war zone out there,” she said. “It’s something that the people who saw it will never forget — something etched into their brains. This (monument) is something that should have happened a long time ago to honor the 20 people who died in the explosion … It’s so overwhelming to see everybody here. We just can’t thank you enough for your support.”
Mayor Scott Getzschman said the monument acts as constant reminder to people living in town, and future generations, that so many good people were affected by that horrific day.
“This monument is going to tell a story to future generations about what happened here in Fremont,” Getzschman said.
As a black cover was removed from the monument, cameras snapped photos, roses were placed at the monument’s base and tears splashed onto the frozen ground as people took a moment to pay their respects to those no longer here.
It was an afternoon of sorrow in one regard — so much damage was done _ but on the other hand, it appeared to be an afternoon of closure for many.
The 20 victims are gone and their families will mourn them, but a constant reminder of these peoples’ legacies will sit on that green space for anybody to see.
Hotel Pathfinder: Man believes survivors of 1976 explosion can inspire people today
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.
Explosion haunts Fremont
Boyd Hammond could relate to the Biblical story of Job on that cold, miserable day in 1976.
Hammond and his wife, Louise, were co-owners of the stately Hotel Pathfinder, a landmark and gathering place in downtown Fremont. But on the morning of Jan. 10, they weren't thinking about their hotel at Fifth Street and Park Avenue. They were getting ready to attend the funeral of their 24-year-old daughter, Ann, murdered in Lincoln by her husband, Tom Hoppes.
Then came the telephone call from Fremont friend and neighbor "Boney" Schafersman.
"I hate to tell you this, but your hotel just blew up," Schafersman said.
For the Hammonds, the unimaginable had happened. They had lost their only child, their business, and friends and acquaintances who died in the horrific blast.
Today -- exactly 25 years later -- the Hammonds live in Naples, Fla., but neither they nor others so tragically affected will forget the natural gas explosion that tore through the six-story hotel, killing 20 people and injuring dozens more.
No one knows what ignited the blast, but Hammond said a coupling popped off an underground plastic pipe (which had contracted each year as it froze during the winters), allowing gas to seep through the dirt under the street and into the hotel. When the building exploded, the blast soared up through the elevator and mushroomed on the sixth floor, said former fireman Don Sawyer in a 1999 account.
Much of the hotel's first two floors, which included a barbershop, drug store, lobby, lounge, dining room, ballroom and business offices fell into the basement. The blast flung debris through the air and chunks of concrete were blown into the street.
Many Fremonters, like Bill Rump Jr. and his son, Chris, vividly recall the ear-shattering blast. Both were across the street at Rump Furnace and Hardware, Inc., a family owned business on Sixth Street.
Bill was waiting on a customer when the explosion occurred. To the World War II veteran, it sounded like a bomb had detonated.
"My first thought was that our building blew up," he said.
Bill was thrown to the floor and the customer ran out the back door. Nearby, some of the ceiling had fallen on the Rumps' secretary Hazel Hunsucker.
Chris Rump was in the center of the store when the hotel exploded.
"It hit, like a sonic boom and a freight train hitting you in slow motion," he said. "First, a deafening bang, followed by a concussion that picked me off my feet and threw me in the air into a wall eight feet away."
Chris made his way to the front of the store to help his father pull Hunsucker out from under the fallen ceiling; although the secretary wasn't seriously injured, she was shaken, Bill said.
Thinking the explosion had occurred in the Rump building, Chris ran across an alley to a plumbing shop to call 911. His brother, Tom, had been in the alley, dodging bricks, concrete and glass that had been falling from the sky. Chris eventually went back through the store and out the front door to see what had happened.
"It was like a surreal nightmare, the most horrible war zone scene ever portrayed in a movie. (There was) not a single pane of glass in a window, only shredded drapery blowing in the wind," he said.
The silence was broken by weak voices crying out from the hotel's upper floors. Then several people stood in the blown out windows, pleading for help.
The basement of the Pathfinder extended out under the sidewalk to the street, but the sidewalk was gone, Chris said. A car in the street was flattened by one portion of the concrete. More voices began to come from the basement.
"Through the haze, I saw Tom balancing on the beams that once held the sidewalk. He had begun to pull people out. I hurried over to help. I couldn't say how many people we actually helped to the street," Chris said.
Gradually, Chris and others at the scene began to hear sirens, coming closer and closer.
"Soon, the streets were covered with fire hoses, and there were firemen and rescue workers everywhere," Chris said.
Firemen would release Chris and other Good Samaritans from their duties.
The Hammonds, who lived in the Fremont lakes area, didn't hear the explosion that rocked the city. Their focus that morning was on their daughter.
The couple's petite, hazel-eyed daughter had been missing since Dec. 30, after she disappeared from Fairfield Hall on the University of Nebraska campus, where she was a custodian. Her husband, Tom Hoppes, then 25, reportedly gave Lincoln authorities information that led them to discover her body Jan. 7 beneath the ice in Lincoln's Pawnee Lake.
As the Hammonds waited for the funeral at St. James' Episcopal Church, Schafersman called with the dreadful news about the hotel.
"I couldn't believe it," Hammond said. "I was beyond shock, because I was already in shock from my daughter."
Hammond said someone drove him to the hotel, where he found his business partner, Wally Loerch. He saw the building's broken windows where people stood waving, wanting to get out. He heard a couple of men say their wives were in the building. One man stepped out of the large broken window at Peterson Insurance, hugged him and said "I feel for you, Boyd."
An Omaha priest, the Rev. Charles Pedersen, drove Hammond home before his daughter's funeral. During that time, Pedersen mentioned Job, who met with sudden, crushing tragedy, including the loss of his children.
Hammond had an idea of what the Biblical figure had gone through.
Ann Hoppes would have turned 50 in September 2001. The hotel, built in 1917, would have been 85 years old in 2002.
Looking back, Hammond, now 82, believes faith helped him and his spouse through those difficult times in 1976.
"We had a lot of faith in God and did a lot praying," he said, adding that they have forgiven the man who murdered their daughter. "You can't live with that hate. If I'd been bitter, I wouldn't be here."
Lives lost in Pathfinder
Julie Todd was driving her large Pontiac Grand Prix down Broad Street the day a disaster rocked Fremont.
It was Jan. 10, 1976. Todd, then 19, was headed south toward Peterson Auto Body Shop to get a new heater for her car. She looked west toward Vienna Bakery, then located on Broad Street, and thought she might get a doughnut. She never made that stop….
Don Sawyer was busy at the Fremont Fire Department that morning. It was cleaning day and the fireman was washing windows when the whole station seemed to shake….
James Hruska was working in an office at ConAgra when he heard a thump and saw the ceiling quiver. He figured one of the huge steel rolls at the flour mill must have been dropped during a cleaning. Then someone rushed into the office with terrible news. There was an explosion at the Hotel Pathfinder, in which Hruska's father, Louis owned a barbershop….
Marge Van Meter was cleaning house and doing laundry. She and her husband, William, planned to go to Omaha that night to celebrate a friend's birthday and their 30th wedding anniversary. Van Meter, 57, was district manager for Nebraska Natural Gas Co.
Earlier that morning, personnel from the Hotel Pathfinder contacted Van Meter because they couldn't reach servicemen who were on another call. He decided to investigate.
Marge continued her household chores. Then the telephone rang….
That Saturday, the lives of many Fremonters were affected when a natural gas explosion tore through the six-story hotel, killing 18 people and injuring dozens more. Two other people died later due to injuries from the blast.
In August 1999, the National Fire Protection Association listed the Hotel Pathfinder explosion as the deadliest blaze in Nebraska in the 20th century. Reports indicated that gas had seeped into the hotel basement, but no one determined what ignited it. When the building exploded, the blast soared up through the elevator and mushroomed on the sixth floor, Sawyer said.
Much of the hotel's first two floors which included a barbershop, drug store, lobby, lounge, dining room, ballroom and business offices fell into the basement. The blast flung debris through the air. Chunks of concrete from the sidewalk were blown into the street.
A surreal scene
Todd remembers the forceful explosion that tossed her car around like a rubber ball, and the heavy clouds of black smoke.
"I couldn't see a thing," she said. "It was completely black inside and outside the car."
Todd floored the brake to no avail. Finally, the car came to a stop. The windows were blown out and the car's fawn-colored interior had become a mosaic of glass, brick and concrete. Todd noticed the windows were gone from the smoke-filled bakery and saw fire coming from the hotel.
She knew she had to get out of the car. By then, people were screaming and crying. She crawled out of the driver's side door and hobbled down the street toward the former Jensen's Cafe (where Marcie's is now). Somehow the scene assumed a surreal appearance. Cafe patrons, still holding their coffee cups, stood on the sidewalk, then parted like the Red Sea as Todd made her way through the crowd.
"Everybody was staring at me and the Pathfinder," she said. "It was like everybody was in shock."
A woman, whose hair had just been shampooed, hurried from a nearby salon screaming; men nearby grabbed the woman to keep her from entering the blazing hotel.
Two other men rushed Todd to the hospital. She was in shock and had whiplash. A piece of metal had entered her leg. And for a year after the explosion, little bits of concrete and glass would work their way through to the surface of her face and scalp.
At the fire station, the eight-man shift on duty was responding to the alarm; Capt. Bill Johnson called for all volunteers and off-duty firemen to report to the site. Sawyer, then 36, drove the rescue squad and followed the lead firetruck to the scene.
"It looked like a war zone,'' he said.
Rolling black smoke made it hard to see.
"I about ran into the truck ahead of me," he recalled.
The ladder truck drove over chunks of concrete, parked on the north side and firemen started helping people out of the upper stories. Toting a ladder, Sawyer went to the southeast side of the L-shaped hotel. There, where the building was just two stories high, Sawyer found six older people standing on the roof. He helped them to safety, then took a 24-foot ladder to the upper stories.
Volunteers and people from the street watched Sawyer, but were too frightened to help. Even now — almost 25 years later — the burly man's face reddens and his eyes fill with tears and he recalls the horrific loss of life that day, and the frustration of being unable to find someone to assist him.
Despite such obstacles, Sawyer crawled 15 feet on the fifth floor; smoke was within a foot of the floor. Later, he checked rooms on the third floor and found three more people.
While various firefighters rescued victims and extinguished the hotel fire, others were across the street at the bakery where a 1,200-pound piece of concrete had ripped through the ceiling, trapping Terry Jacobs, then 18, underneath. Firefighters spent 20 minutes digging through the rubble and pulling him free. The teen had a broken hip and was hospitalized for two weeks.
As rescue efforts continued, dazed onlookers stared at the grand hotel which had been a community landmark for 59 years. Hruska made his way to an area across the street.
All that was left of his father's shop was gaping, smoke-filled hole.
"If he was in there, he's not alive," Hruska told himself.
Just three years earlier, Hruska's mother had lost her battle with ovarian cancer. And only an hour before the blast, James Hruska and his father ate breakfast together as they had almost every morning since her death.
Stunned by what he saw, James Hruska hurried to the home of Helga Anderson, a woman his dad had been dating. Anderson was with Louis in the hotel coffee shop when a customer came for a haircut. Louis, 59, and the client left minutes before the explosion. Then, Anderson said, the lights went out and the ceiling began to cave in. Hotel owner Paul Christensen, also in the coffee shop, helped people including Anderson out a back door to safety. Anderson thought some of the ceiling had fallen on her head. She also suspected that Louis was killed.
"She was right," Hruska said, quietly. "My dad was dead."
A calm survivor
By about 2 in the afternoon the hotel fire was under control; firefighters were exhausted, but three made a room-to-room search on the second floor. They didn't expect to find anyone alive, but located three people right away, Sawyer said.
About halfway down the hall, on the third floor, firefighters were surprised when they opened the door of one apartment. There, an elderly woman wearing a coat sat calmly in a chair with a purse in her lap.
"I knew you guys would come and get me,'' she said.
Firefighters found another elderly woman in bed during a search of apartments in the northwest corner of the sixth floor.
"She was drenched, but she was alive and we got her out and she made it," Sawyer said.
Not everyone was so fortunate.
Firefighters found one couple in bed. Both had been burned and were dead.
The long wait
While firefighters feverishly worked to help victims, the local hospital was filled with blast victims and family members. Shortly after hearing about the explosion, Marge Van Meter and her friends, Ruth and Ray Yanney, went to the hospital.
"I figured if he was hurt, that was where he would be," Van Meter said.
They waited there all day long.
"I was just sure Bill was doing something. He wasn't hurt, just doing his work … I guess I didn't face reality," she said. "I was just sure he'd come walking out of there some way."
The Van Meters had enjoyed a good marriage. They had met during World War II in San Francisco. She was a Wave and he was a First Class Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy. They'd fallen in love, eventually married in 1946 and moved to Fremont where they raised three children. Their first grandchild was only six months old.
Although their actual anniversary wasn't until Jan. 24, the couple planned to celebrate with friends. But their time together had drawn to a close and they never shared their 30th anniversary.
Marge later was told that her husband had gone to the basement, smelled gas and hurried upstairs to the lobby. He was telling a desk clerk to evacuate the building when the explosion occurred.
The desk seemed to be a dividing line between life and death.
The clerk, who was behind the desk lived. Van Meter, who was on the other side, did not.
Firefighters on rotating shifts searched through the rubble for bodies, a search that extended into the next week; Hruska said he later learned that his father had been found dead, under water. Van Meter was among the last to be found.
Both Van Meter and Hruska remember how the community responded with flowers and cards.
"I got flowers and notes from people I didn't event know," Van Meter said. "Bill was so loved."
Bill would be remembered as a wonderful husband and father, for his caring attitude, gentleness and sense of humor. His friend C. H. "Buck" Smith would describe him as a man who came up the hard way, but one who grew into one of the finest persons he'd ever known.
Hruska still thinks of his father every day. He recalls his dad's pride in his Czech heritage, love of polkas and joke-telling. He enjoys telling how John F. Kennedy, while campaigning for President in 1960, stopped by his dad's barbershop and shook his hand.
And how his dad ran the barbershop for 22 years.
Hruska still has the keys to his father's shop, a door hinge, and a piece of the black and white floor. He believes he'll see his parents again someday.
"You go on to another life someplace else, probably a better place. I really believe that," he said.
Van Meter's friends and family also share the hope that they will see their loved one again.
"William D. Van Meter is not dead — he has just gone away," Smith said at his friend's funeral. "Wherever his spirit is, I am sure there are some good trout streams and a beautiful place to hunt ducks, because that would be our kind of heaven."