On Christmas Day, 2020, video footage shows a bright orange fireball flashing across Second Avenue for mere seconds before revealing an irregular path of destruction.
Six months later, engineers are still trying to determine the future of some buildings near the blast.
But cleanup and restoration efforts are finally gaining speed for one such building, the Rhea building at 168 Second Ave. N.
Last week, Steve Prosser, an engineer that’s helping analyze the most heavily impacted downtown buildings, helped lead media crews inside what was formerly Rodizio Grill in the Rhea.
From the outside, the Rhea appears pretty normal, apart from being attached to a structure that looks like a lopsided brick dollhouse. Inside, there were intact Christmas trees and restaurant tables in one room, and a confused mass of warped metal and wood in the next.
“There are places in this building where you have a cheap little Home Depot door that made it, and right beside that there was a steel door that was for a safe and it got totally blown off its hinges,” Prosser said.
When fuel in a conventional bomb ignites, whether through propane, gunpowder or diesel mixed with ammonium nitrate, there is a sudden release of gas and a powerful wave of pressure — which accounts for the vast majority of a bomb’s damage as opposed to the thermal energy.
These pressure waves travel at the speed of sound, or about 1,100 feet per second, and this impacts buildings and materials differently.
In total, the blast damaged 65 buildings. Since that time, 31 businesses have reopened, 21 buildings have “normal” construction like replacing windows and interior work, and the remaining buildings are still in the assessment phase, according to Ron Gobbell, who is heading the Mayor’s Second Avenue project team, which is helping facilitate the rebuilding process with private properties and businesses.
The city will focus on 10 buildings, primarily between Commerce and Church streets on Second Avenue, where there will be construction sites continuing well into the next year.
In the middle of this block, the Rhea building now represents a big step in this restoration process. Prosser’s engineering team has finally begun removing internal debris, following four months of analyzing the stability of the Rhea and its adjoining structures.
“We can’t hardly have 40 people in here hauling out trash bags and debris when there’s a chance that something over there could fall and make this building start cascading,” Prosser said.
Prosser’s team started with removing weight from the roofs, and then checked every rafter and beam and sometimes proceeded brick by brick.
After removing the junk inside, the team will begin “hardening” the Rhea by adding structural components in a way that will won’t destabilize neighboring buildings, which are still being evaluated.
“We’re still in the assessing phase. It’s very slow, it’s very meticulous,” Gobbell said.
To ensure the success of this patchwork construction effort, the mayor’s project team has gathered input from the planning department, residents and businesses — and an expert panel from the Urban Land Institute.
“Their recommendations very much aligned with the feedback that we got from the community, which is certainly very reassuring and gives us a blueprint for how we want to move forward in this area,” said Lucy Kempf, director of the Metro Planning Department.
Kempf suggested the team will focus on enlivening the riverfront, boosting pedestrian activity and infrastructure, and preserving the area’s historic vibe.
“It is a unique street, and we have a unique historical character. We have every belief that we’re going to be able to maintain that,” Gobbell said.