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Witnesses recall Great Falls refinery explosion: ‘It felt like there was an earthquake’

Posted at 6:49 PM, Mar 07, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-07 20:49:06-05

It’s a calm Thursday evening in Great Falls after an explosion and fire at the Calumet refinery.

Emergency crews were called to the refinery along 10th Street and Smelter Avenue at around 1:15 p.m. Responders worked for about three hours to put out two fires following the explosion.

Witness reactions flooded social media with firsthand accounts calling the immediate aftermath chaotic.

Ryan Johannesen was working at Mountain View Co-Op directly across the road from the refinery when he felt the explosion.

“It felt like there was an earthquake in the building,” he said. “The windows were rattling and stuff and I looked up and there were flames probably eighty feet in the air.”

Johannesen said he was afraid for the safety of anyone who might have been near the explosion.

“It scared me. I mean, that’s a pretty close call. It could have been a lot worse with the two gas stations. I’m just glad nobody got hurt,” he said.

Dawn Wood, owner of HCL Equipment and Country Boys Welding located along Old Havre Highway, told MTN News she was talking to her employees when they heard a loud boom.

“My front door, my office door, opened and closed and my dog started barking so I went out and I was looking,” she said. “I thought somebody hit my building with the car, but it wasn’t. I seen the smoke and the fire coming from the refinery and I was like, ‘Oh my god, the refinery’s exploded.’ I was terrified because I know what they make there.”

Calumet Montana Refining released a statement at 2:39 p.m. confirming all plant personnel were accounted for and no injuries were reported. The cause of the explosion is being investigated.

The Montana Department of Transportation reported all roads within a half-mile radius of the refinery were blocked during the incident. As of 6 p.m. Thursday, all roads were open.

Fire and police units cleared the scene around 4 p.m.

Both North Middle School and Sacajawea Elementary School were under a shelter in place during the incident.

Businesses close to the refinery were evacuated including the Montana Club, the Mountain View Co-Op stores, and the Great Falls Animal Shelter. Mountain View Co-Op employees were allowed back in the store around 4 p.m.

Responding agencies included Great Falls Fire Rescue, the Great Falls Police Department, the Montana Highway Patrol, and the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office.

We will update you with any new information.