No charges filed in Blue Rhino propane plant explosion

Fire sparked by forklift, igniting propane

By Michelle Dendy - Web Editor

TAVARES, Fla. - No criminal charges will be filed in the explosion at the Blue Rhino propane plant in Tavares last year.

[READ: Letter from state attorney | Report summary | Full report]

The state fire marshal closed the investigation into the fire that ignited at the plant on County Road 48 back in July and ruled it as accidental.

Eight people were injured in the blast, including several who suffered critical burns. All were released from the hospital.

In a letter released from the state attorney's office, the fire sparked when the propane was ignited by a forklift.

According to employees, on the night of the explosions, workers were emptying propane cylinders in the outdoor storage area by releasing the gas directly into the air. Investigators said a forklift operator then drove up and stopped, before backing up the forklift.

The forklift driver told investigators he was instantly surrounded by fire, causing second and third-degree burns. Another employee said he remembers feeling a "boom" and then waking up in the hospital, one month later.

Officials were looking into if anyone should face charges for culpable negligence.  It was found that no one was "consciously doing an act that the defendant should have known it was likely to cause death or great bodily harm."

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration found numerous safety violations, including a failure to properly train workers on how to safely handle propane and what to do in an emergency.

It took months for the 53,000 propane tanks to be hauled away and for the facility to be reopened.

Tavares city officials estimate the explosions caused $3 million in damage.

Blue Rhino responded to the report release, saying, "It has never been Blue Rhino's practice to bleed propane tanks in the yard under any circumstances. As a result of the July incident at our plant in Tavares, activities in our yard are now limited to storing propane tanks, loading full propane tanks onto trucks, and unloading empty propane tanks from trucks. Both the loading and unloading of propane tanks is conducted using forklifts operated by full-time employees who are trained to use this equipment."

Employees told investigators they had to release propane into the air because the machine that empties the tanks was broken for months. But a company spokesman says that "while the evacuation machine is not a fast process it has always function as designed and is currently functioning properly. "

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