Deborah Olsen: Good News Building explosion recollections
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A constant drone forms the backdrop of working newsrooms. Dispatches from the police scanner, reporters conducting interviews and ringing phones form a white noise that writers learn to shut out entirely.
That is until they can’t.
At noon on Thursday, Feb. 3, 1994, the sounds at the Steamboat Pilot offices changed abruptly. The monotone drone of the police dispatcher became an urgent, clipped directive. Sirens from the nearby fire and police stations filled the air. An explosion had been reported at the Good News Building. I looked around and realized that I was the only reporter in the office. Everyone else had gone to lunch.
I grabbed my camera and jumped in my car, heading in the general direction of Fifth and Oak streets. I was able to park next to a sheriff’s vehicle in the lot behind the courthouse, in retrospect ridiculously close to the scene.
I arrived within 10 minutes of the initial explosion, and fire was just starting to break out. Dazed, injured people came limping, sometimes crawling, from the building. Those who emerged unscathed were rendering aid to the most severely injured. A man shouted for help; he was carrying a young boy whose hair was on fire. Passersby were racing toward the disaster, offering assistance.
Routt County Sheriff Ed Burch, who happened to be eating lunch at the Fifth Street Café, was coordinating early efforts to evacuate the building and render aid to what we later learned were 18 injured victims. Burch and I realized at almost the same moment that we needed to move our cars ASAP to make room for arriving fire trucks.
We walked back to the parking lot together, both of us deeply affected by what we had seen. Burch had been so calm as he took control of the scene a minute earlier, but back at his car, his hands visibly trembled as he called for reinforcements.
My own colleagues arrived quickly: Tom Ross, John Brennan and John Russell went instantly to work. I started interviewing owners of the businesses that were located in the Good News Building. When you’re a small-town reporter, you don’t often have to deal with such enormous tragedy, and the hardest part of my job that day was talking to people who clearly weren’t yet able to wrap their brains around what had just happened.
Later in the afternoon, I turned over my film to be developed in our dark room. Yes, film. We were all told to leave the office; the entire downtown area was being evacuated in case of further explosions.
After dinner, I was too restless to stay home. I drove as close as I dared to downtown, then cut through the alleys on foot — ducking into the shadows when a police car cruised slowly past — and made my way to the back door of the old Pilot building. Newspapers (what else?) had been pasted on the windows, and the daily Steamboat Today crew was working in stealth in the basement. I quickly realized that leaving was the most prudent course. The fewer people in the building, the less likely they would be caught.
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For the next few days, we worked from home. You could say it was an early experiment in remote workstations.
The following Tuesday, the busiest day of production for the weekly Pilot, Editor Tom Ross said my photos helped to round out our comprehensive coverage; they were the only ones we had of the victims because I had arrived ahead of the ambulances.
Ross chose one image in particular that he wanted to use, but we didn’t know the names of the people in it. He sent me out to see if I could ID them. By going door to door in Old Town, I was able to get names for everyone in the picture but one woman, who was on her knees attending a man with an obvious head injury. Only in 2018 did I learn that her name was Dennise Groeger Neville. Unfortunately, the subject came up when a family friend asked for a copy of the photo to display at her memorial service. She died at the age of 60 of complications from a stroke.
We ran my picture from just minutes after the explosion in the Steamboat Pilot on Thursday, Feb. 10, 1994. I won an Associated Press award for news photography for that image, but you won’t see the certificate on my office wall. How do you tell someone that you were honored in the course of a disaster of such magnitude? Plus, it is still hard to talk about that day, even 26 years later.
Deborah Olsen is a former editor of the Steamboat Pilot and current publisher of Steamboat Magazine.
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“It’s like having gasoline out there,” said Brian Steinhardt, forest fire zone manager for Prescott and Coconino national forests in Arizona, in a recent AP story about the increasingly fire-prone West.