MOORE — Moments before a fireball engulfed Twister Distillery on Friday morning, distiller Jeff Thurmon was telling a reporter from The Oklahoman how he had worked for three straight days to fill the company’s first order for 100 cases of Success Vodka.
“It’s been going 24 hours a day, nonstop; there’s alcohol and flame involved, so you can’t leave it,” Thurmon said.
Minutes later, a geyser of clear alcohol began spewing several feet into the air from a makeshift still in the garage bay Twister Distillery rents in a Moore industrial park. The room then erupted in a flash of orange flame as Thurmon rushed to shut off a propane tank.
The heat from the flash flame caused glass bottles at the distillery to explode. The sound of shattering liquor bottles could be heard for several minutes after the blast.
“That should not have happened — I should have never have had people here,” Thurmon said after the explosion, sitting outside the building in his underwear before paramedics and fire crews arrived on the scene around 10 a.m. Friday.
His clothes had been burned off and his skin was reddish-orange. Thurmon appeared to be badly burned over most of his body. The flash flame had scorched off his three-day growth of facial hair.
“He (Thurmon) has a rule that he doesn’t have people here while he’s making it (vodka), but we thought it would be OK,” said Alvin Philipose, a local chiropractor who owns Twister Distillery.
Thurmon was taken by helicopter to Integris Baptist Medical Center. He was listed in critical condition Friday with second-degree burns covering 52 percent of his body, hospital staff said.
A photographer and videographer for The Oklahoman had just left the distillery after taking photographs and video for a newspaper story about Success Vodka when the explosion happened. A reporter was still at the distillery conducting interviews and witnessed the still erupt and subsequent flash fire.
Philipose said the blast was caused after the still overheated, causing alcohol to erupt from the top of the structure.
“It was an ethanol flash, the still overheated and the alcohol in the air caught fire,” he said minutes after the blast, which sent white smoke billowing throughout the industrial park.
New still not running
Twister Distiller recently had invested in a new 9-foot-tall, custom-made copper-lined still that the company had shipped from Texas on a flat-bed truck. The new still was not up and running Friday and the vodka makers were distilling their product with an assemblage of metal pots and tubing, including a re-purposed beer keg. Parts of the still were wrapped in tin foil. The vodka-making setup was hooked to a tank of propane on top of a wooden pallet elevated on the tines of a forklift.
The distiller shipped its first cases of Success Vodka to local liquor stores this week. The company said in interviews before the blast that they had entered the product in national test-tasting competitions and they hoped to eventually have the vodka on store shelves across the country.
Twister and another local distiller, Scissortail Distillery, are both in an industrial park in the 2300 block of N Moore Avenue.
Scissortail Distillery owner Garrett Janko, who operates just a few doors down from Twister, was once a co-owner of Twister Distillery, but sold his stake in the business to Philipose last year and no longer has any involvement with the company.
“That was my distillery — I took care of it since its inception and it’s very painful for me to see someone hurt themselves there,” Janko said.
The city of Moore ordered Janko not to reopen Scissortail until Monday, when inspectors could look through the building, Janko said.
“There’s just some smoke damage and everything smells like burned furniture,” he said.
Twister Distillery has also been ordered not to reopen until further city inspections, Moore Fire Chief Gary Bird said.
Both Twister and Scissortail were operating in Moore legally and had been previously been inspected by city officials, the Moore Fire Department said.
The distilleries are both licensed by the Oklahoma ABLE Commission, which requires the distillers to ensure they meet all local safety and fire codes, ABLE Commission staff said.
Thurmon had recently moved to Oklahoma from the New Orleans area to help Philipose build the Success Vodka brand. He previously worked for the Austin vodka maker Tito’s Handmade Vodka and felt he could make a better product using imported wheat from Italy.