Big blast unnerves east-side residents

What caused the Sunday night explosion that put neighbors on edge across mid outer East Portland? See what we discovered, when we visited the ‘scene of the crime’ …

We found evidence that this is the site where hooligans set off a very, very big firecracker on Sunday night, on the west bank of the Willamette River, south of the Sellwood Bridge.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Waiting for a green light at the intersection of SE Division St. and SE 82nd Avenue of Roses, on Sunday evening, March 28, we were surprised by the concussion from a loud explosion rolled through outer East Portland at 8:06 p.m.

The police frequencies came alive as dispatchers at the 9-1-1 Center relayed calls of concern about the explosion – from neighbors as far east as 122nd Avenue, all the way west to the Willamette River.

We headed for the Sellwood Bridge – the area where police and fire crews were sent, based on the calls received by dispatchers.

“Portland Police Officers and Fire Bureau personnel responded to the area, but were unable to locate what caused the explosion,” reported Portland Police Bureau spokesperson, Detective Mary Wheat.

Speculation to cause runs wild
The following day, officials ruled out “sonic booms” from jets and thunder.  KXL radio talk show host Lars Larson opined the blast that rocked the area was a meteor that exploded in the atmosphere above the city because it was reportedly heard in Vancouver.

While speculation about the cause of the explosion continued, Portland Police Bureau’s Explosives Disposal Unit team members combed shoreline areas on both sides of the Willamette River near the Sellwood Bridge, Wheat told us. “They narrowed down the area, after reviewing information from citizen’s calls to 911.”

Officials say an explosive device was set off right here, on the west side of the Willamette River, at Powers Marine Park.

Field trip reveals evidence of blast
“Investigators did locate evidence of a large pipe bomb this morning in Powers Marine Park that appears to have been detonated,” reported Wheat on Monday morning.

About 14 hours after the explosion rang out across East Portland, we visited Powers Marine Park, which is located near the west end of the Sellwood Bridge. It runs south of the bridge, for about a half-mile along Highway 43, hugging the bank of the Willamette River.

This stairway leads from the park down to the river’s shoreline.

We walked down into the park on steep stairs, made primarily from sawed-off railroad ties, then crossed the Lake Oswego Trolley tracks, and went into the park itself. From there, we walked down a steep, gangplank-like stairway onto the shoreline, and looked for the evidence.

A little north of the stairway was an area that had been used as a campfire site. Along with driftwood, there was a thick piece of 2×8” lumber, freshly splintered, perhaps by the explosion.  A group of stones set in a circular pattern as if to hold some object in place – perhaps a cylindrical pipe bomb.

Investigators had snatched up most of the debris, but some fragments from what looks like a thick large, thick white plastic pipe remain.

Pipe pieces remain on shoreline
Embedded in the shoreline’s sand were fragments of white plastic, the thickness and curvature of which indicated that they came from a thick-walled plastic pipe. At least two fresh cigarette butts were lying nearby.

Asked to comment on our findings, Wheat said she only had information given her by the bomb squad, and that they would not elaborate on their findings, concerned it might encourage those involved to continue their experiments, or could encourage others to copy the stunt.

Looking west from the shoreline, here’s the area in which the blast evidence was located.

Judging by the erosion at the top of the bluff, and the soggy, water-soaked area below, it appears as the bluff edge was eroded by water – not taken out by the blast. Muddy footprints, facing uphill, are clear evidence that someone recently made a hasty retreat from the river’s shoreline.

A local television station showed a portion of an eroded bluff – and the reporter stated that it had been blown out by the force of the explosion. But, our examination of the area, before the television crews arrived, indicated that the bluff had been eroded by water spilling out from road drainage.

Clearly visible in the eroded area were rain-filled, but deeply-set, boot prints coming up from the shoreline, up into the park – as if someone had quickly exited the area below – instead of walking over to, then up, the stairway.

Weather conditions make sound carry
“Investigators believe that the sound was amplified in an easterly direction,” Wheat said, “because of its placement near the bank and river and due to the low cloud cover.”

Police do not have any evidence at this time that anyone was injured during the explosion, Wheat added – or that any property damage had occurred. “This is an ongoing investigation, and EDU officers will continue to investigate this incident.”

© 2010 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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