Explosion destroys Stinson buildings

David Briggs
An apartment above the Oceanic Realty office in Stinson Beach exploded on Tuesday, rocking the town, sending debris flying, and catching adjacent structures on fire. A bookkeeper who was in the downstairs office miraculously survived with only minor injuries.

A powerful explosion rocked downtown Stinson Beach on Tuesday morning, destroying two buildings and damaging several others. An investigation is underway, but the blast, which originated in a vacant apartment above Oceanic Realty, was most likely caused by a propane leak, Stinson Beach fire chief Kenny Stevens said.

The town’s firefighters were on the scene within a minute. Wood, sheetrock, broken windows and a roof were strewn across Shoreline Highway as personnel doused the buildings. The real estate office and two law offices were destroyed, and the building that houses Meristem Flowers and Al’s Alleged Antiques took significant damage. 

“We have some very dear people who lost quite a bit,” Chief Stevens said. “It’s a very emotional time in town.”

Still, a more tragic outcome was avoided. Two individuals suffered minor injuries but declined medical attention, according to the Marin County Fire Department.

“Had this been a weekend, any one of our nice days with bumper-to-bumper traffic, we would have been dealing with losses of human life,” Chief Stevens said.

The boom was felt across town, and residents rushed to see what had happened, gathering on the green across the street. Many said they assumed it was an earthquake until they saw the billowing black smoke.

“It was so intense, I thought my ceiling was coming down,” said Michelle Fox, who lives a couple of blocks away.

The event took out Horizon Cable and Pacific Gas and Electric lines, leaving customers without service, and firefighters had to be careful because the power lines were not immediately de-energized. 

Marin County Fire brought an excavator to knock down standing beams and quell the blaze, which took about 90 minutes to get under control. The Bolinas Volunteer Fire Department assisted.

While the fire smoldered, Caltrans used a front loader to clear the street, and a contractor hauled debris away. The highway reopened in the evening, but the charred pieces of the building remain. 

The Breakers Café, Stinson Beach Books, and a couple of apartments had windows blown out. The Sand Dollar Restaurant was damaged by flying debris.

Al Engel, who has owned the Oceanic Realty building and the neighboring flower shop building for over 50 years, said he was five minutes from arriving at work. The bookkeeper for Oceanic Realty was already there, and she managed to escape out the front, he said.

Mr. Engel said the upstairs apartment where the blast started was used as an extra space by agents, and it was in good shape. He plans to rebuild. 

“It’s sad, it’s really sad to see 50 years of history go down the tubes, but you can’t dwell on spilled milk,” he said. “You don’t get as far as I am without some resiliency.” 

The building has housed a number of operations over the years, including the library, the post office and a general store. Oceanic Realty has used the building since 1999.

The five real estate agents will now work in a conference room on the back patio and a space next to the restaurant. Allan Merryman and Jeffrey Graham, the owners of Meristem Flowers, said they will continue to sell their shells, jewelry and plants from tables on the street as soon as possible, and they are working from home to deliver flowers.

The structure fire was the second in the area in 11 days. A blaze that started in an upstairs apartment of the Waterhouse building in downtown Bolinas on June 5 displaced five residential tenants and seven businesses, including a real estate office, a hair salon and a surf shop. The cause of that fire is also under investigation.