TAVARES, Fla. (AP) — After hearing two explosions, maintenance worker Gene Williams looked outside to see a 20-by-20 foot fireball rising above an outdoor storage area at the Blue Rhino propane plant.
Moments later, a forklift worker stumbled into the building with flesh hanging off his hands. His legs and face were burned. Exploding 20-pound canisters of propane began raining down around them during the series of explosions late Monday night.
Bright orange flames would grow as high as 200 feet, fueled by the exploding canisters that shot through the air like fireworks. Houses nearby shook and residents awakened to the sound of "boom after boom after boom."
No one died, but eight workers were injured, including one worker who was hit by a car on a nearby road while fleeing the explosions. Officials said the damage could have been significantly worse if three 30,000-pound propane storage containers had caught fire at the plant that refills propane tanks for gas grills and other home uses. About 50 nearby houses were temporarily evacuated, though none was ultimately damaged.
If the large tanks had exploded, "it would have wiped us out," said Lake County Battalion Chief Chris Croughwell, one of the first responders to the explosions in the town northwest of Orlando.
The cause of the explosion was under investigation by federal and state authorities. Williams said it appeared to begin about 100 yards from the loading dock in an area where some of the plant's 53,000 20-pound propane canisters are stored on plastic pallets.
Tavares Fire Chief Richard Keith said possible causes of the explosion may be either equipment malfunction or human error. Sabotage was not suspected.
The plant's two-dozen workers were preparing to go home when the explosions started Monday night, said Williams, who works the third shift. Based on what the forklift operator told him, the explosion was likely caused by a "combination of human error and bad practices, possibly. I don't want to speculate any further, that's what the forklift driver was telling me."
Williams said the forklift driver told him, "'I did what they told me to do, I did what they told me to do, and then this happened.'"
"Something in that area must have triggered it. I don't know if he did something or something else triggered it," Williams said.
Williams said they were able to remotely shut the valves to the three big tanks. But they weren't able to turn on water sprays meant to keep the tanks cool during a fire.
"It was too violent, too hot, to get in there and turn them on," he said.
Croughwell said the hoses designed to spray water on the large tanks didn't go off because they had to be manually activated — requiring someone to brave dangerous conditions.
"Most sane people don't stick around for an event like this," he added.
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 ask that the hoses be activated automatically by computer. "That way, it's fail-safe," Wolfe said. "We're lucky those tanks didn't explode."
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