Grainy security video sheds some light on the events leading up to Saturday’s devastating propane tanker explosion at Atlas Castings & Technology.
A company camera mounted in an alley shows driver Charles McDonald, 64, delivering propane from his truck into stationary tanks. Addressing the City Council on Tuesday, Fire Chief Ron Stephens said McDonald appeared to struggle to make the connection and then got help from foundry workers.
Stephens did not explicitly mention the video, which has not been publicly released, but assistant fire chief Dan Crotty said in an interview that it shows a “catastrophic failure” of the hose or the connection before McDonald “disappeared in a cloud of release.”
Atlas President Duane Britschgi said Tuesday that the company would not release the security video because the investigation is ongoing.
The gas was ignited by a furnace inside the foundry. Subsequent explosions sent fire hundreds of feet into the air and were heard for miles.
Firefighters initially were told the truck driver had died. Later, when they saw someone moving, they came up with a plan to rescue him, Stephens said. Because the airspace above the foundry had been closed, McDonald was taken by ambulance to a landing pad in Fife and then flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
McDonald remained in critical condition Tuesday, hospital officials said. His family has declined interviews.
Stephens spoke at the council’s mid-day study session, providing a synopsis of the spectacular fire and his department’s response to it. He also praised the firefighters’ bravery for risking their lives in the disaster.
About 10 firefighters risked being blown up while placing three unmanned water cannons within 150 feet of the two stationary tanks, Crotty said. The tanker truck had an 8,000-gallon capacity, while the stationary tanks could hold 28,000 and 31,000 gallons, respectively.
The cannons, called monitors, had to spray water on the top of the tanks to prevent the metal from heating up and failing, but not put out the flaming plumes coming from the tanks’ release valves, Crotty said.
“Given that level of potential, the incident commander chose to go ahead and put those folks in there to try and prevent (a bigger explosion) from happening,” he said. “Risk is just part of the job.”
Stephens said firefighters initially had a hard time getting a good view of the fire because of the layout of the property. Eventually, they got a look from an elevated camera on Highway 16, which had been closed to traffic, and saw fire burning underneath a tank.
Firefighters checked with Puget Sound Energy and determined there was a gas line in the area. They worked for several hours with the utility to get the gas shut off, Stephens said.
Stephens added that firefighters received a lot of help from Tacoma police, the Washington State Patrol and Tacoma Water. Firefighters used more than 4 million gallons of water, he said.
Councilman Tom Stenger wanted to know how the city could work with Atlas, possibly through permitting or the inspection process, to make it safer for workers. He wondered why the propane transfer occurred so close to a furnace.
Stephens said he wondered the same thing, but noted investigators from the state Department of Labor and Industries are still investigating. Stephens also said the leaked propane would have found an ignition source somewhere else, if not from the furnace.
Atlas’s Britschgi said that his company was not responsible for the explosion.
“Something failed on the truck. The gas spread at something like 20 feet a second,” Britschgi said. “We’ve been using propane since 1956 and have never had an incident.”
Jason Hagey: 253-597-8542
Ian Demsky: 253-597-8872