1 dead, 1 burned in explosion at Tavares manufacturer warehouse

Man, woman airlifted to hospital in Gainesville

By Erik von Ancken - Anchor/Reporter

TAVERES, Fla. - One of two people who were severely burned in a Lake County warehouse fire has died, according to officials.

Tavares Fire Chief Richard Keith said a man and a woman were severely burned in a warehouse explosion on North Duncan Drive around 1 p.m. Saturday. Rhonda Zierden was injured in the explosion, and George Harthman was injured and later died, officials said.

The explosion happened inside Firepoint Products, a licensed federal explosive manufacturer, according to the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

After the explosion, Zierden and Harthman were flown to Shands Hopsital in Gainesville. Firefighters said Zierden n was in critical but stable condition. 

David Green, who works nearby, crawled through the black stinging smoke to help pull the man from the burning building.

"It was like hell in there," said Green. "We grabbed him and pulled him out the door."

Three Tavares police officers helped rescue Zierden, who was trapped.

"You could hear someone beating on the big roll-up door," said Sgt. Tracy Goodknight. "There was a big steel 2-inch pipe, I picked up the pipe, beat on the steel door, and wedging it under the steel door. We were able to pry the door open, see the female inside, and me and the other 2 officers pulled her out."

Zierden is the co-owner of Firepoint Products.

State records show Zierden owned the business with Neil Zierden. 

Lake County court records show Rhonda Zierden filed for dissolution of marriage on April 29. Neighbors said they had been married for 20 years.

ATF said Firepoint Products manufactures a device called "Firefly," used by the forestry service to set controlled burns.

"The business received a Federal Explosive License in 2013," said Kevin Richardson, ATF Public Affairs. "ATF is conducting the investigation into the cause of the fire because it is a federally licensed business and at the request of the Florida State Fire Marshal.  ATF special agents specializing in fire and explosive incidents will continue to work this on-going investigation and utilize federal resources when needed."

On his LinkedIn page, Neil Zierden describes himself as an Orlando Fire Marshal.

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