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A propane gas plant went up in flames late on July 29 in Lake County, Fla., The Associated Press reported. Propane tanks continuously exploded one after another for about 30 minutes at the Blue Rhino facility. Fire crews rushed to the scene and were able to subdue the flames after a few hours. Reports did not indicate if proper flame detector equipment had been installed.
Residents claimed to have heard the explosions from as far as 10 miles away. Nearby citizens in about 50 homes were under evacuation orders immediately following the blasts, but the mandate has since been lifted.
A group of between 24 and 26 people were at the plant during the explosion, according to John Herrell of the Lake County Sheriff's Office. Initially, half of the workers were unaccounted for, but officials eventually found everyone. Eight people suffered injuries and at least three were reported to be in critical condition. There were no reported fatalities.
The fire seems to have caused only minimal damage to other nearby buildings. A strip-mall appeared to have lost power and some utility poles had caught fire.
"I pulled into a strip-mall of businesses, and you can see debris in the parking lot," said Amy Green, a reporter for NPR affiliate WMFE. "I assume it's debris that was thrown through the air in the blast."
There were an estimated 53,000 propane cylinder tanks at the facility totaling more than a million pounds of gas. The explosions made local residents think of fireworks initially.
"There were propane tanks flying straight up in the sky and just exploding," said resident Mariah Ryle, who lives a quarter of a mile from the facility. "Some of it actually looked like fireworks. That's what I actually thought it was, at first, was fireworks."
The explosion could actually have been even worse. According to the Orlando Sentinel, three 30,000 pound tanks that held a bulk of the propane did not ignite.
"The fact that those things didn't explode, that's the reason I go to church on Sunday," said Eric Wages, a chief for the Tavares fire station, the department closest to the Blue Rhino plant.
Blue Rhino manufactures propane tanks for sale at retail stores and primarily residential uses such as personal grills and fish fryers. The Lake County plant employs about 50 people and is tasked with restoring and refilling old propane tanks.
Cause of the fire
The trigger of the outburst is currently under investigation, but local fire crews are beginning to rule out potential instigators.
"We don't think there was any act of sabotage or anything like that," said Richard Keith, the Tavares fire chief. He attributes the explosion to a possible equipment malfunction or human error.
Officials report that the Blue Rhino facility had put measures in place to limit the damage of a potential fire, but they did not go off as planned. Instead of using a fire suppression system, the plan called for hoses to spray water on the large tanks of propane.
Industrial Safety News brought to you by Safety Systems Technology, Inc., leaders in fire and gas detection.