January 9, 1997 in Nation/World

Winthrop Blast To Be Investigated Huge Explosion Sparks Fire, Ignites Ammunition

Adam Lynn The Associated Press Contributed To Thi Staff writer
 

Federal agents were set today to begin sifting through the wreckage of a sporting goods store destroyed by an explosion which sent debris flying through the heart of this Old West-themed tourist town.

The force of the Tuesday night blast at The Outdoorsman knocked a waitress working in a restaurant across the street to the floor, said Mayor Don Johnson.

“The concussion was just horrendous,” said Johnson, who said he felt the 9 p.m. explosion in his house four blocks away. “It was a huge blast.”

The explosion sparked a fire that ignited thousands of rounds of ammunition inside the Riverside Avenue store.

“It sounded like the Fourth of July,” said Town Marshal Joe Mueller.

Witnesses said exploding and ricocheting bullets created a din that could be heard throughout the north-central Washington town. A mounted elk head was blown out a window across the street.

Greg Biehl, owner of the Tenderfoot General Store, said the blast broke windows of 18 or 19 nearby businesses and left the street littered with merchandise and debris.

No one was hurt.

Besides The Outdoorsman, two other buildings were heavily damaged. Officials estimated total damage at $500,000.

Authorities closed off a block of the main street with yellow police tape and called in agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Three ATF agents, including Lance Hart of Spokane, arrived Wednesday afternoon and were expected to begin their investigation this morning.

More ATF agents were scheduled to arrive in Winthrop today, Mueller said.

Okanogan County detectives and Winthrop town marshals also were participating in the investigation.

The cause of the blast is still unknown, although some authorities suspect a propane leak is to blame. A propane tank near the store, however, was still intact, according to Mueller.

“The rumors are flying,” he said. “Honestly, we don’t know what it is.

“At this point, we don’t know if there’s been a crime committed or not. But we’re handling it just like it’s a crime scene.”

Mueller asked residents to return items they picked up as souvenirs.

Vic Moss, owner of The Outdoorsman, expressed relief that no one was injured.

Electricity was restored to the downtown block Wednesday. Most shops planned to resume business by the weekend.

Tuesday’s explosion was the latest blow to this community of 800 year-round residents.

In 1993, a spectacular arson fire destroyed the Winthrop Emporium, a landmark building that housed six businesses. No one has been arrested in connection with the blaze, which caused nearly $1 million in damage.

This winter, heavy snow has thinned the town’s normal holiday crowd by up to 75 percent, Johnson said.

Cross-country skiers and snowmobilers who usually flock to the area over the holidays couldn’t get through mountain passes blocked by as much as 8 feet of snow.

The mayor said he hopes Tuesday’s explosion doesn’t keep more tourists away.

“We want the news to be that Winthrop is still in business,” he said.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Adam Lynn Staff writer The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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