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Published June 20 2012

VIDEO: Laney, Cass delegation OK after gas explosion at Tennessee hotel

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A gas explosion that rocked the Gaylord Opryland hotel here Tuesday night happened “just feet” from where Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney had been standing hours earlier for the National Sheriff’s Association conference, he said.

When he surveyed the damage Wednesday, Laney said he saw part of a ceiling had dropped onto the spot where his table was set up for several days as he campaigned for the association’s board of directors.

“Had that been six hours earlier, I don’t know how there couldn’t have been casualties,” he said in a phone interview.

Laney said none of the 34 people from Cass County who made the trip to Nashville were in the hotel at the time of the blast, which forced about 5,000 people to evacuate.

Sheriff’s office personnel and their families attended the conference to see Laney receive the Sheriff of the Year Award. He also was elected to the association’s board, being sworn in Tuesday afternoon.

“And then, ‘boom,’ two seconds later … all that’s irrelevant, because all you care about is your people and your families and making sure everybody’s all right,” he said.

Authorities determined that a gas leak had ignited in a mechanical room in the convention part of the hotel, said Jenny Barker, public relations director for the Gaylord Opryland.

Laney said he had left that area at about 5:45 p.m. – 2½ hours before the explosion.

The Cass County contingent was split into two groups at the time of the blast, he said. His group was at a restaurant about half a mile away, and the other group was at a show at the Grand Ole Opry.

“When we first heard about it, you know, instantly you wonder, was this targeted at the sheriffs that are here from around the nation?” he said. “Being cops, of course we’re suspicious, and we kind of went into that mode.”

Command staff immediately hit the phones and ordered the Cass County delegation to gather for a headcount at the nearby Radisson Hotel, where part of the group was staying, Laney said. When they learned at about 1:30 a.m. that the Gaylord wouldn’t reopen for the night, all 34 people crammed into 12 rooms at the Radisson and stayed there, he said.

No one was hurt in the explosion, and guests were allowed back in Wednesday morning. Damage to the building was estimated at less than $750,000, according to Gaylord Entertainment Co.

The sheriff’s conference canceled its morning events and moved the evening banquet to another area of the hotel, Laney said.

Those who drove to Nashville left for Cass County about two hours later than planned Wednesday morning, Laney said. He and the rest of the delegation will fly out this morning.

“We’re really looking forward to seeing North Dakota soil,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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