Daughter of Olympus Hotel owners recalls night of Port Angeles gas explosion 47 years ago

Daughter of Olympus Hotel owners recalls night of Port Angeles gas explosion 47 years ago

PORT ANGELES — Today’s date brings back memories for many.

On the night of Sept. 30, 1971, an explosion ripped apart a city block in downtown Port Angeles in what the former city fire chief, Clay Wolverton, told the Port Angeles Evening News — a precursor to the Peninsula Daily News — was “the worst disaster in the history of Port Angeles.”

Sometime after 11 p.m., built-up butane that reportedly had leaked from a gas line running underneath the sidewalk at Front and Laurel streets blew, blasting apart the four-story Olympus Hotel, Haguewood’s Restaurant and GlamorElla Health Spa and injuring 38, one of whom later died of his wounds.

The explosion is the reason that gas is not piped into Port Angeles now.

In 1972, according to Port Angeles City Council minutes, the Natural Gas Corp., which maintained the gas lines running underneath the city, agreed to surrender to the city the rights to build any new gas lines — and those that existed eventually were shut down by city fire officials.

The Olympus Hotel had been owned by Kenny and Clara Owens since 1965.

Here are the recollections of that night as written by the Owens’ daughter, Darlene Jones, a retired Port Angeles educator, 47 years later.

“It was the last night of September 1971. My husband Jim and I had gone to bed in our home three miles from downtown Port Angeles. Around 11, Jim sat straight up in bed.

“’It’s too quiet,’” he said.

“He laid back down. We talked about the strange feeling in the air, then tried to go to sleep. Within half an hour the phone rang.

“My mother said, “The hotel’s gone. Come and get us.”

“I asked, ‘What do you mean, the hotel’s gone? Was there a fire?’

“’There’s no fire,’ she said. ‘But the hotel’s gone. Come and get us.’

“My parents, Kenny and Clara Owen, owned and managed the Olympus Hotel. They lived in the fourth-floor penthouse.

“My brother Dick Owen had recently returned home from the Navy and Vietnam. He was working for our parents and also lived in the hotel. In addition, my 90-year-old grandmother and an aunt were visiting from Oregon and were staying in the hotel.

“Mom had been working the late shift in the hotel lobby. Since it was the end of the month and an exceptionally quiet night, she finished the book work, closed the office and went upstairs to the penthouse a little early.

“Dick put the garbage out each evening. With the office already closed, he finished his chores early and went upstairs to write a letter. Grandma and Auntie had already gone to bed.

“Mom and Dad were sitting in bed watching the 11 p.m. news when the entire building shook.

“About an hour earlier, the restaurants on the block had noticed a flare-up on their pilot lights and burners. Then, just after 11 p.m. the main gas line that ran under the sidewalk exploded.

“Chunks of the sidewalk were blown onto the headboard of my parents’ bed. They were not even scratched.

“If Dick had been putting the garbage cans out at the regular time, he would have literally been blown sky high.

“Cars parked next to the curb were smashed to about three feet high by the falling concrete.

“The concussion lifted the four-story building into the air, then the entire building settled back down eight inches lower than it had been.

“Everyone started helping each other out of the building. GlamorElla Health Spa was to the east of the hotel lobby. No one was there at that time of night.

“Haguewood’s Restaurant was to the west. There were a number of customers and employees in Haguewood’s.

“A total of 38 people were injured. Fifteen were hospitalized for some time, mainly due to broken bones. One man, Gene Martin, was knocked unconscious. He died three months later, never having regained consciousness.

“The hotel was located at 110 E. Front St., now a parking lot and Captain T’s Shirt Shoppe. Damage was so extensive the entire building had to be demolished.

“Retired fire chief Clay Wolverton, called it ‘the city’s worst disaster.’

“My husband made a sign crossing out the words ‘Olympus Hotel’ to be replaced with ‘Tiltin Hilton.’

“There was no wide-spread fire; just a small flame coming from the broken gas main.

“There were no more explosions, even though gas was leaking over much of the area.

“It could have been so much worse. If it had been in the daytime, or even earlier in the evening, many more people would have been injured or perhaps killed.”

The aftermath of the gas line explosion on Sept. 30, 1971 was documented with photos by the Port Angeles Evening News, a precursor of the Peninsula Daily News, and The Associated Press.

The aftermath of the gas line explosion on Sept. 30, 1971 was documented with photos by the Port Angeles Evening News, a precursor of the Peninsula Daily News, and The Associated Press.

The aftermath of the gas line explosion on Sept. 30, 1971 was documented with photos by the Port Angeles Evening News, a precursor of the Peninsula Daily News, and The Associated Press.

The aftermath of the gas line explosion on Sept. 30, 1971 was documented with photos by the Port Angeles Evening News, a precursor of the Peninsula Daily News, and The Associated Press.

The Olympus Hotel before the 1971 gas explosion.

The Olympus Hotel before the 1971 gas explosion.

The aftermath of the gas line explosion on Sept. 30, 1971 was documented with photos by the Port Angeles Evening News, a precursor of the Peninsula Daily News, and The Associated Press.

The aftermath of the gas line explosion on Sept. 30, 1971 was documented with photos by the Port Angeles Evening News, a precursor of the Peninsula Daily News, and The Associated Press.

Daughter of Olympus Hotel owners recalls night of Port Angeles gas explosion 47 years ago

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