Companies Sued Over Omaha Gas Line Blast

     OMAHA, Neb. (CN) — The owners of the destroyed Mercer Building in Omaha’s historic Old Market district sued for damages caused by a horizontal drilling crew that ruptured a natural gas pipeline. The crew then made things worse by delaying calls for assistance until after a nearby restaurant exploded, according to the complaint.
     When M’s Pub, an icon to Omahans and visitors alike, burst into flames on January 9 it set off a catastrophic fire that would nearly consume the Mercer Building.
     “The leaking gas exacerbated the fire’s efficiency, intensity, strength, speed, power, heat and damage as it raged within the brick walls unabated,” the complaint states. “It took well over nine hours and 60 Omaha firefighters to get the fire under control. Even then it continued to smolder and burn for a significant time.”
     By the time the fire was under control all interior floors and the roof had collapsed, and exterior walls were structurally weakened. As the complaint says, “A centerpiece of the Old Market area of Omaha — the Mercer Building — was destroyed.”
     North Central Services, a Minnesota corporation, was performing the work on behalf of Cellco Partnership which does business as Verizon Wireless. Both are named as defendants, along with United Private Networks.
     Verizon and UPN collaborated on the design and logistics of installing the underground fiber optic cable in order to increase Verizon’s telecommunications network capabilities, while North Central Services was tasked with installing the cable. An NCS borer on a horizontal drilling apparatus punctured a gas line, the complaint says.
     The Mercer family has been at the heart of the Old Market since its beginning, a time when Omaha officials were busy razing the vast majority of its historical buildings including the largest demolition of a National Register historic site in history when the 24 warehouse buildings of the Jobbers Canyon district were brought down in 1989.
     In the 1960s, Sam Mercer, an attorney who held dual citizenship in the United States and England, inherited several old buildings in the district and built on his holdings, according to his obituary in the Omaha World-Herald. “We always thought the buildings had a lot of character and a certain charm,” the elder Mercer told the newspaper in 1993.
     Sam Mercer died at the age of 92 in 2013, but his son Mark and the family’s management company continued to be mainstays in the fabric of Omaha’s social life, particularly in their Old Market home.
     Mark and his wife Vera lived in the Mercer Building. Vera is an internationally known photographer and artist who has exhibited her work in galleries and hotels around the globe.
     “At the time of the fire Mrs. Mercer kept numerous large works of her art in a finished or near finished state,” their complaint says. “All of this original art work was destroyed.”
     In addition to the Mercer’s holdings, four business were also displaced by the fire including two restaurants, a boutique, and a home décor shop.
     The Mercers claim negligence and liability against North Central in rupturing the gas line, failing to follow OSHA safety procedures, and for not notifying emergency services when they became aware of the leak.
     Verizon and UPN were also sued for negligence and liability over their failure to properly design and oversee the project.
     Metropolitan Utilities District, the local gas utility, will be sued at a later date as mandated by state statutes. MUD’s failure to turn off the gas for over an hour after the initial explosion played a huge role in the scope of the damage, as firefighters were unable to enter the building until the gas lines were shut.
     None of the parties have responded to requests for comments.
     The Mercers are represented Anne Marie O’Brien of Lamson, Dugan & Murray in Omaha.

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