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An explosion took place at a gas plant in Putnam County, W. Va. on May 13, causing injuries to two workers. The plant is owned by Airgas, which distributes gases to industrial businesses. The cause of the fire is unknown, but it has been confirmed that the explosion happened within 50 tanks of acetylene, a highly explosive substance that can ignite under a wide variety of circumstances.
The first explosion set off a chain reaction as the fire rapidly spread from one tank to the next, sending fireballs 100 to 150 feet in the air, The Associated Press reported.
"We felt our building shake like it's never come close to shaking before from a storm or anything," Doug Barker, CFO of nearby Clark Truck Parts, said. "It was enough to make us run."
Firefighters arrived on the scene at approximately 3:20 p.m., where they worked to extinguish the flames. By evening, fire crews had suppressed much of the fire and ultimately decided to let the four cylinders that were still on fire burn themselves out.
The set of explosions took place in a storage area enclosed by concrete, outside of the main plant. Once the fire spread, explosions continued approximately every 15 seconds, creating a burning hole in the building that an employee of Transwood, about a quarter mile away from Airgas, described as the size of a house.
Preliminary investigations have revealed that the explosions may have been caused by gas residue left behind in the empty tanks. Hazmat crews arrived on the scene, as well as members of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Healthy Administration. A full investigation has been launched.
Dangers of Acetylene
This substance has highly explosive properties and is often used for fueling cutting torches. Acetylene is unstable and ignites easily – the static electricity created by walking across a carpeted floor on a dry day is 1,700 times greater than what is needed to set off an acetylene explosion.
Even when stored properly, cylinders containing the gas should be secured at all time, and moved with care. These tanks should never come in contact with any sort of flames or heat.
In industrial facilities using acetylene, combustible gas leak detectors should be installed and evacuation procedures should be well-practiced. In the event of a gas of a leak, everyone on the premises should leave quickly and move a safe distance away from the building. Emergency services should be contacted immediately.
Industrial Safety News brought to you by Safety Systems Technology, Inc., leaders in fire and gas detection systems.