Major explosions rock propane plant in Tavares

9 workers injured at Blue Rhino facility in Central Florida, Lake Co. EMS says

TAVARES, Fla. - Officials on Tuesday say they believe they have a propane leak under control at a plant in Tavares where explosions took place the night before, injuring at least eight people -- four critically.

[PHOTOS: Explosions rock propane plant in Central Florida | Scott meets first responders]

The blasts, which continued for about four hours, began around 11 p.m. at the Blue Rhino plant located on County Road 448, prompting evacuations of homes and businesses within a mile of the facility.  The evacuation order was later lifted.

Before noon Tuesday, a small leak was reported in one of three 30,000-pound tanks at the facility.  Crews were working to contain the leak, and a Blue Rhino truck was seen pulling up to the tank, possibly to drain the tank.

About two dozen workers were at the plant when the explosions occurred and all were accounted for after it was initially believed that 15 employees were missing or trapped. 

Three men suffered burns in the incident and were listed in critical condition at Orlando Regional Medical Center.  Another critically injured worker was taken to Shands Hospital in Gainesville. Two others were taken to Waterman hospital and were released and one was taken to Ocala Regional hospital.  No first responders were hurt in the incident. 

Among the injured was Kaghy Sam, 29, of Leesburg, who was struck by a car while running from the explosions, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.  The driver, a 72-year-old man from Mount Dora, was not injured.  Sam was airlifted to Ocala Regional Medical Center with serious injuries, the FHP said.

Officials initially said eight people were injured in the incident. Lake County Emergency Medical Services said Tuesday afternoon the final count of injured people was nine after someone drove themselves to the hospital for smoke inhalation complications.

Lake County Sheriff Gary Borders said the blasts, seen and felt as far as 20 miles away, took place inside the plant and blew the roof off the building.  A plume of smoke from the explosions was so large that it was picked up by radar, which showed a green swath over the region.

Aerial footage of the scene early Tuesday morning showed fires burning over a large area, with flames and plumes of smoke shooting into the night sky.

More than 50,000 propane cylinders -- similar to ones used for back yard grills -- were scattered throughout the plant and caught fire, each exploding into the air.  Witnesses said the 20-pound tanks shot up to 300 feet in the air.

The heat was so intense that it melted a bumper of a car in the plant's parking lot.

"At one point in time it was really big.  Then it dies down and then about 5 minutes ago, it blew up.  It blew up again even worse, so hopefully it'll keep dying down," said witness Cody Rhoades.  "You can see the flames and all of a sudden (there was) a loud boom -- propane tanks blowing up.  You just see it going and flames at one point, just a minute ago, you could feel the heat going off the fire.  It was way hot."

Bobby Hutsenpiller, who was hired by a temp agency and was working his first day on the job, was less than 100 yards from the first explosion inside the facility.

"I was so scared.  I didn't want to look back," said Hutsenpiller, who added that he ran for his life.

Power has been turned off at the plant, and the cause of the blasts is under investigation.  Tavares Fire Chief Richard Keith said Tuesday morning that it's not believed to be an act of sabotage.

"We don't think there was any act of sabotage or anything like that.  We honestly think it was probably equipment failure with a combination of maybe human error," said Keith, adding that the state fire marshal will conduct an investigation.

"It's a scary situation when you fear something like that and then it actually happens," John Bogdan said.  "I didn't know what it was at first.  I thought maybe the lumber place (a nearby business) got on fire, then we started seeing those grill tanks, gas tanks, flying up in the air, and it literally had to be at least 200 to 300 feet in the air.  The first explosions really rocked the house."

On Tuesday morning, Blue Rhino posted a statement on its Facebook page about the incident and the injured workers.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with them and their loved ones. We applaud the fast response of local emergency personnel, and we have pledged our full support to them as they investigate the cause of the incident," the statement said.

The Blue Rhino plant in Tavares was established in 1994 and refills and distributes 20-gallon tanks of propane.  The facility cleans used tanks, refinishes them and refills them before returning them to stores.

In 2011, the company paid a $2,295 fine after a federal inspection found an end piece was not properly installed on the hose that is used to blast paint off canisters before they are repainted, according to OSHA records and a company spokesman.

State inspectors found no violations during three inspections since 2010, the most recent coming just 10 days before the explosion.

The Blue Rhino plant is owned by Ferrellgas Partners, L.P., a publicly traded company based in Overland Park, KS.

It bought Blue Rhino in 2004, the same year the 10-acre plant in Tavares opened. It is on land leased from an Arizona-based commercial real estate corporation, which in 2004 paid $5.5 million for real estate that included the parcel, according to Lake County records.

The land and buildings are currently assessed at $1 million; equipment and other tangible property on site is worth another $2.5 million, according to the county tax collector.

It processes 2.3 million tanks a year, servicing all of Florida, as well as southern Georgia and Alabama.

The plant has 29 full-time and 20 part-time employees, a Ferrellgas spokesman said.

Tavares is about 40 miles northwest of Orlando.

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