BY TANYA BRICKING, FRED REEDER JR. and WALT SCHAEFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
BATAVIA -- Propane tanks exploded at a propane supply company Friday, injuring six workers, at least one critically, and shaking buildings in a three-block area.
Aerial photo shows the extent of the damage at the Auxier Gas Co. along Main Street in Batavia
(Ernest Coleman photo)
The silver, corrugated-steel maintenance building at Auxier Gas Co. ripped apart like aluminum foil as the blast sent a white cloud of smoke across the Stonelick Creek valley.
Firefighters at the Batavia firehouse -- almost directly across Main Street from Auxier -- felt the vibrations about 2:30 p.m. and said they thought a truck had hit the building. Firefighter Jamie Scherzinger was one of the first to see four of the injured workers come outside across the lawn.
"They came to us with their hair burned off, all their clothes burned off," he said. "They were talking to us. They were calm, shocked. That's not a good sign."
Six victims, all men, were taken to University Hospital, three by helicopter and three by life squads.
They included: Robert Woods, 48, critical; Eric Pottorf, 18, Kyle Greiner, 18, and Josh Barnes, 18, all serious; Tim Hendricks, 52, fair. Jermaine Smith, 17, was serious at Shriners Burns Institute, where he was transferred.
Hometowns were not immediately available.
"This is the worst disaster I have seen in 18 years," said Dr. Richard Kagan, director of the burn unit at University. "With the number of people, it was unusual to have everyone survive."
Most of the burns are second and third degree, Dr. Kagan said. Some had small lacerations; all require surgery. Most injuries weren't life threatening, he said.
Most serious is Mr. Woods, who is on a breathing apparatus, burned over 65 percent of his body, Dr. Kagan said. Mr. Hendricks, the least injured, was burned over 15 percent of his body, he said.
The hospital activated its disaster plan, but deactivated it when the situation came under control, Dr. Kgan said. He was pleased with the response by medical personnel.
Fire fighter surveys the damage.
(Ryan Miller photo)
"This reflects well on our burn team," he said. "They were all working together."
Firefighter Harold Long, 40, of Union Township in Clermont County, was treated for heat exhaustion at Clermont Mercy Hospital. He was listed in stable condition.
Batavia Police Chief Bill Siefert said investigators suspect the explosion was triggered in a maintenance building where workers paint refurbished propane tanks and work on delivery trucks. It appears that a worker opened a tank that was supposed to be empty but wasn't, the chief said, and the gas exploded when it hit the flame of a nearby water heater.
The company is a distribution center for propane gas used by homes and businesses. It includes five buildings, two mobile home residences, and two 30,000-gallon propane storage tanks. Propane gas, when compressed into liquid form for transport and storage, is highly combustible.
Tom Pottors, father of victim Eric Pottors of Mount Orab, arrived at the hospital shortly after 6 p.m. Friday. He had returned home from a doctor's appointment to find a slew of messages on his answering machine, and learned details of the explosion as he drove into Cincinnati.
One of six workers injured is attended to by paramedics.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
"All I'm worried about right now is how bad a condition he's in," said Mr. Pottors, whose son, 18, fills tanks at the company. As black smoke tumbled out of the gas company shortly after the blast, Shelley Watkins noticed two men with their arms extended walking toward her through the Batavia Post Office parking lot.
"I saw these two young kids and one said, "Please take me to the hospital,' " said Ms. Watkins, who then realized the two men were badly burned. Ms. Watkins was about 100 yards from Auxier, and flagged down police. Medics worked on the two victims, who sat in the grass just off Main Street, with their arms still extended.
Friday's blast was the second time the Clermont County seat has been shaken by an explosion from the plant. A larger tank exploded at Auxier in 1978, killing the company's owner and injuring four others.
Officials from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio hazardous materials unit were on site Friday evening. Two 500-gallon tanks were being monitored for leaks.
Eight fire departments responded from Clermont and Hamilton counties and as far away as Williamsburg. Air-Care helicopters arrived from Cincinnati and Columbus.
"It rocked this place. It shook me big-time," said Diana Fleek, 36, of New Richmond, a clerk at the nearby Short Stop Drive Thru. She watched the employees walking out of the charred building with their burned arms held away from their bodies.
"It really shook me up," Ms. Fleek said. "I didn't know what to do."
Firefighters quickly doused the blaze, which had sent flames shooting 60 feet high, and cooled the surrounding tanks to prevent further explosion. Firefighter Scherzinger said the injured workers warned, "You better get everybody away from here, as far as that bridge down there," referring to the bridge just west of downtown Batavia.
A one-block area of Batavia that included 14 businesses was evacuated.
Angie Sweet, 36, of Sardinia, was taking orders at the Hardee's drive-thru when she heard a boom that sounded like a jet airplane. "It shook the whole building. I didn't know what to think. I just thought, "Oh, no.' "
Letter carrier Randy Iles said the first blast rocked the post office. "The whole building shook," he said as he stood outside the post office, which was evacuated after the blasts.
"I heard one big (explosion) and about four or five little ones," said Mr. Iles, of Fayetteville. Mr. Iles said he pulled up to the post office about 2:10 p.m., and the blasts occurred a few minutes later.
"They just looked like they were in shock," he said of the victims. "They put oxygen on them."
Officials reopened Main Street about 6 p.m.