ORLANDO (CBS4) – A huge fireball shot into the sky as explosions rocked a central Florida propane facility late last night.
The blasts started around 10:30 p.m. at a Blue Rhino propane exchange warehouse in Tavares, about 40 northwest of Orlando. At least two dozen employees were in the building when the tanks started exploding.
“I heard the explosion and it probably threw me back about three feet. I landed on my butt. And then I kind of seen, like blurry and my ears were ringing real bad. All I could see is everyone just running and I got up and just ran,” said employee Bobby Hutsenpiller.
There were more than 53,000 tanks at the facility, some ignited and shot into the sky.
“We started seeing those grill tanks, gas tanks flying up in the air. And it literally, it had to be at least 200, 300 feet up in the air,” said John Bodgen.
Smoke still billowed on Tuesday morning from a storage container on the property, which consists of a couple of warehouses next to each other. The parking lot was littered with thousands of blackened 20-pound propane containers.
Nearby, three 33,000-pound tanks of propane sat untouched. Lake County Battalion Chief Chris Croughwell said the hoses designed to spray water on the large tanks in case of fire, did not go off as planned because they had to be manually activated.
“Most sane people don’t stick around for an event like this,” he added.
Eight people were hurt, four critically.
Tavares Mayor Robert Wolfe said Tuesday that he was surprised to learn the hoses at the plant had to be manually activated. If Blue Rhino reopens the plant, Wolfe said he plans to raise the safety issue. “That way, it’s fail safe,” Wolfe said. “We’re lucky those tanks didn’t explode.”
Tavares Fire Department Battalion Commander Eric Wages said five workers walked up to a command center firefighters set up near the plant Monday night with skin hanging off their arms, torso and faces. He said their arms were outstretched and they were in complete shock.
Area residents said the blasts could be felt for miles in every direction.
“People from very far away, in towns six, seven, eight, ten miles from here were reporting feeling their homes shaking,” said Lt. John Herrell with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.
Tavares Fire Chief Richard Keith said possible causes of the explosion may be either equipment malfunction or human error. Sabotage was not suspected.
Gene Williams, a third-shift maintenance worker at the plant, said he was at the back of the warehouse when he heard two loud explosions. Most of the workers were inside the facility, but there were about five in the parking lot.
When he went to look outside, there was a fireball about 20-feet-by-20-feet about 100 yards from the plant’s loading dock in an area where the 20-pound propane canisters are stored on plastic pallets.
After that, a forklift driver stumbled into the building. He had flesh hanging off his hands, and his legs and face were burned. Williams said he got the man in a van as the cylinders from the 20-pound tanks starting falling down around them.
He said they were doing repairs and painting the tanks when one of the paint lines had broken, but it was repaired. The workers were getting ready to go home when the explosion happened.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has launched an investigation, as did the Florida State Fire Marshal’s office.
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