A series of propane explosions shook Tacoma’s Atlas Castings & Technology foundry Saturday, sending four men to the hospital and rattling windows and nerves miles away from the Nalley Valley business.
At least one giant propane tank was burning off fuel into the evening, after three to five explosions sent flames hundreds of feet high over the largely industrial area near the intersection of Highway 16 and Interstate 5.
The blast was heard as far away as Kent, Orting and Sumner.
“Everything shook, then went black,” said Zeph Drisk, an Atlas electrician who estimated he was 100 feet away from the initial blast. “You couldn’t see nothing in front of your face. … I had to find a way out. I felt my way out until I saw some daylight.”
James Lopo lives up the street from the foundry in the 3000 block on South Wilkeson Street.
“It shook the whole house,” he said. “There was a huge explosion. It was more than an earthquake. It looked like a nuclear explosion going up hundreds of feet.”
Saturday night, firefighters poured thousands of gallons of water on two propane tanks to cool them and keep them from exploding, too, said Tacoma deputy fire chief Jolene Davis.
“We don’t want those tanks to BLEVE,” Davis said, pointing out the hoses, blocks away from the command center, as they poured water on the vessels.
BLEVE, she said, is an acronym for “burning liquid expanding vapor explosion.”
“The safest way to get rid of product after there’s been an explosion like this is to let it burn itself out,” she said.
Police evacuated the area for blocks around the foundry. The potential for another explosion was significant, Davis said.
The initial explosion, about 3 p.m., involved an 8,000-gallon propane tanker truck filling foundry tanks. The truck exploded, setting off a giant fireball.
A large two-axle portion of the truck blew more than 150 feet into the air and landed, still in flames, on the Highway 16 overpass, along with parts of the truck cab and other debris, said state Department of Transportation workers. No cars were struck.
Fire also spread to two nearby propane storage tanks, 28,000 and 31,000 gallons in size. Ferrellgas, a nationwide propane company, owns the propane in the tanks, said corporate spokesman Scott Brockelmeyer.
“We have no idea what went wrong,” said Bob Cox, president and CEO of IXL Transportation Services, the Molalla, Ore., company that owns the tanker truck and contracts with Ferrellgas.
Charles McDonald, the 64-year-old driver of the propane truck, was flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where he was listed in critical condition.
Three men were taken to St. Joseph Medical Center, where they were treated for injuries and released. One suffered facial burns and two had leg injuries.
Tacoma police closed off an area bounded by M, Center and Pine streets and South Tacoma Way.
Also closed was the Highway 16 overpass over the Nalley Valley. The quarter-mile-long viaduct carries about 131,000 vehicles per day, according to the DOT.
“The explosive potential of this type of fire is so huge, we had to put a safety area around it,” said Washington State Patrol spokesman Jeff Merrill. Transportation officials said a crew would inspect the bridge to ensure safety before reopening it.
The explosion initially knocked out power to 13,000 Tacoma Power customers, utility officials said. Power was restored to all but 200 of them within two hours.
An executive of Atlas said the 32 employees working at the foundry Saturday had been accounted for after the blast.
Joe Farmer, supervisor of the cleaning room at Atlas, was nearby when the first explosion hit.
“It about blew me off the forklift,” Farmer said. “It blew out several windows. All of the buildings nearby used to have junk all over the tops of them.
It’s not there anymore.
“I’m not usually one to get too frightened. But I was pretty frightened.”
It could be days before investigators can pinpoint a cause for the accident, said Davis, the deputy fire chief.
Investigators also don’t know how extensively the foundry building might be damaged. The danger of further explosions kept them from a close inspection.
Staff writers Debbie Cafazzo, C.R. Roberts, Bill Hutchens, Kris Sherman, Rob Tucker, Ian Demsky, Jeff Burlingame and Scott Fontaine compiled this report.