Gas leak blamed for blast
SEAN ROBINSON AND KELLY KEARSLEY; The News Tribune
Tacoma Fire Department investigators said Monday that faulty hoses or faulty connections between stationary propane tanks and a delivery truck likely caused “a very significant leak” that led to devastating explosions Saturday at a Tacoma foundry. Investigators said the fire at Atlas Castings & Technology was accidental, assistant chief Dan Crotty said.
“It appears there was some kind of failure at the connection,” he said. “Either the hose itself or the connection.”
Atlas President Duane Britschgi said Monday that he didn’t know whose equipment failed – Atlas’ or that of IXL Transportation, the Oregon company whose truck was delivering the propane when a series of explosions erupted about 3 p.m. Saturday.
Atlas primarily uses natural gas, but keeps propane on hand to fuel heaters and ovens that warm the building and sometimes welding torches when the gas supply is low, Britschgi said.
“We were bringing this load in to top off the tank – getting ready for a cold spell,” he said.
But as the driver began to fill the propane tank something went wrong. Britschgi said some of the propane ended up on the ground. A heavy fog of the vapor expanded, wafting through the door of a concrete building 25 feet away and toward a furnace. Heat set it off.
“That’s what caused the first explosion,” Crotty said.
Damage from the first explosion, plus the continuing leak of propane, set off the second, larger explosion of the truck tank, heard and felt for miles. Twenty fire units and 50 firefighters swarmed to the scene, Crotty said.
The delivery truck driver, Charles McDonald, 64, remained in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, a hospital spokeswoman said Monday. Family members declined interviews.
The chaos of the explosion, the fire and the response complicated McDonald’s airlift to Harborview. Firefighters were surprised to find him at the site, Crotty said.
“They had … decided that the chances of anybody surviving that blast were small,” Crotty said. “So they deployed their defensive operation. While they were surveying the area from defensive positions, they noticed the person.”
Paramedics treated McDonald and decided he needed to be flown to Harborview. A helicopter from Airlift Northwest brought two flight nurses, but McDonald couldn’t be lifted immediately because of his weight, Crotty said.
Rescuers talking on emergency radios Saturday estimated he weighed 300 pounds.
“If you lift off with much greater weight, you’re putting the whole crew at risk,” said Mardie Rhodes, Airlift Northwest spokeswoman.
The helicopter had to lift off again and unload fuel. By the time it returned, there was a new problem: temporary flight restrictions over the foundry site, called by the Federal Aviation Administration.
According to Crotty, paramedics and flight nurses pondered their options. McDonald had to be driven to a landing zone away from the foundry, but the traffic around the area was beginning to snarl.
They decided against St. Joseph Medical Center, considered a drive to another landing site at Bellarmine Prep and ultimately chose to transport McDonald via ambulance to a landing zone in Fife.
“The lightest traffic was in the direction of Fife,” he said. “It was faster to go to the Fife landing zone than to go back through town. During all that time they were with him, four paramedics and two flight nurses were working on him.”
Monday at Atlas, Britschgi was trying to get what he could of the foundry up and running.
He expected 250 to 300 workers – more than half the company’s staff – at work today in Atlas’ finishing operations. He said he didn’t know when the melting operation – heavily damaged by the explosion – will resume. He didn’t know the cost of the damage done by the fire, though Britschgi said the company is insured.
A few employees cited concerns about lost work days without pay due to the explosions.
“We asked employees that if they have vacation days to use – use them,” he said. “But if we are down for an extended period of time, we’ll take care of our employees.”