The carpeting clung to the walls of the Super 8 Lodge room, taut under the weight of Gordon and Eloise Jallen. The rest of their second-floor room had been caved in by an explosion that ripped through the hotel.
Just after 1 a.m., on April 9, 1989, a natural gas leak in a commercial dryer ignited. Flames engulfed the three-story hotel, and the blast jolted awake 124 guests, who suddenly needed to escape.
Eloise was in the bathroom getting ready for bed, and her husband was already sound asleep when the blast occurred. The bathroom door blew off its hinges and knocked Eloise over. Gordon woke up when the blast threw him from the bed.
Gordon thought maybe a bomb went off. His second thought was that a car had crashed into the hotel.
Eloise’s instinct was to escape. She wanted to jump out the window. Instead, both she and Gordon made it out of the room through the door, crossing the slack carpet that remained after the floor had burned out.
“When you walked into the hall the air was so acrid, there was no oxygen left,” Gordon said. “From the air you knew something bad had happened.”
Wearing a complete outfit together, Gordon in only pants and Eloise in only a shirt, the couple ran for the nearest exit. The door handle was burning hot, indicative of fire on the other side.
The couple turned around and fled the other way.
“We went down to the end of the hall and got out that way. There were people barreling out of their rooms,” he said.
The scene at the hotel was mayhem.
“My initial thought was that there would be a lot of casualties,” Billings Police Officer Henry Chapman recently told the Gazette.
Chapman was one of the first to arrive. In the few minutes it took him to drive from his patrol route on 24th Street West to Southgate Drive the hotel already looked demolished, he said.
“I remember seeing a lot of debris,” he said. “Air conditioning units had been blown out quite a ways from the building.”
Chapman and other officers who responded quickly began to evacuate the building and look for guests.
As the fire department began to fight the 30- and 40-foot flames, Chapman and several other police officers were already inside making sure rooms were emptied. Soon firefighters aided the rescue.
“We had to be cautious because we didn’t have respirators,” Chapman said, referring to the police.
Three patrolmen saved a blind woman and her elderly guardian, who were trapped under a collapsed ceiling on the first floor.
Several people used cars parked below to break their fall escaping from the third and second floors.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, someone is going to get hurt’ when people were jumping from the window and landing on cars,” he said.
Dave and Jan Hagstrom had fashioned a rope ladder with their bed sheets and were lowering themselves down the side of the building, according to Gazette reports at the time. They also helped an elderly couple escape with the rope ladder.
Gordon and Eloise found safe passage using the hallways. Outside, the April night was a cool 22 degrees — although the fire emitted a fair amount of heat for the guests clad in pajamas.
Gordon discovered that his car keys were still in his pants pocket. Eloise and Gordon waited in their car and watched the hotel burn.
Eloise snapped some photos from her camera she’d left in her car. They invited two women to join them in the car. Neither Gordon nor Eloise can remember their names anymore, but they remember sitting quietly, comforting each other.
Of the 124 guests at the hotel, 31 people were injured. Only two needed to be taken to a hospital, but those injuries weren’t life-threatening, the Billings Gazette reported.
Not one person died.
When Tom Hanel, then a Billings police sergeant, arrived about an hour and a half after the explosion, the fire was well contained. About 50 firefighters had worked to extinguish the flames.
A majority of the guests had gathered at the nearby Holiday Inn, which had sent shuttle cars. They waited in the lobby of the hotel, which provided coffee and snacks.
Damage to the hotel was estimated to be in the range of $1.5 to $2 million, personal objects and many damaged cars added to the long list of costs.
The explosion was caused by a natural gas leak from a commercial gas-powered dryer in the laundry room of the hotel, fire officials said the day after the explosion.
What ignited the gas was never determined, Billings Fire Marshal Larry McCann told the Billings Gazette a few days later.
“We will probably never know exactly what ignited the gas,” he said. That it was purely accidental though, was never questioned. The investigation was much more cut and dried than the investigation of an explosion that had leveled a Billings house that February.
Anything but Super 8
The morning after the explosion, Eloise and Gordon Jallen left the nearby Holiday Inn and returned to the hotel to see if any of their belongings were salvageable.
On the way to their room a firefighter saw Eloise and gave her a hug.
“I don’t know how anybody could have survived that room. It was miraculous,” he told her. They had found out their room, on the second floor, was almost directly above the laundry room where the dryer had exploded.
Gordon and Eloise's memories from that night are still clear 30 years later, though small details — like people’s names — have faded.
The Minnesota couple were in Billings for the night by chance. They had wanted to stay at the Holiday Inn, but there had been no vacancy.
They had planned to go from Casper, Wyoming, to Olive, a small Eastern Montana community near Broadus. Gordon had a friend there who he had wanted to visit while he was nearby. But their plan was cut short.
“I happened to buy a Billings paper, and it showed me an obit for his mother,” Gordon said. Deeming it wasn’t an appropriate time to drop in on his friend, but not wanting to cut their trip short, they decided to visit Billings.
“In the same paper there was an ad for the Safari Club convention at the Holiday Inn, and so we decided to go to that,” he said. “And that’s how we ended up in Billings.”
Without possessions or clothes and with little reason to stay in Billings, the couple left for home that morning. They drove to Pinewood, Minnesota, without stopping.
“I made it in 11 hours. It should be 12 hours, but we pushed through it,” Gordon said. Neither of them wanted to stay overnight. “No more hotels for us for a couple days,” he said.
To this day, Eloise still has trouble sleeping in hotels. Gordon says it doesn’t bother him. He frequently visits Billings, when asked where he stays when he visits he answered, “anywhere but Super 8.”