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Explosions, fire injure 2 at W.Va. gas plant

| Monday, May 13, 2013, 8:27 p.m.

POCA, W.Va. — Two workers were injured on Monday when highly flammable gas used in welding exploded at a West Virginia industrial site, officials say.

Fire crews were sent about 3:20 p.m. to Airgas, a distributor of specialty gases in Poca, outside of Charleston. Putnam County Emergency Management Director Frank Chapman said the explosion involved about 50 tanks of acetylene that were at Airgas waiting to be refilled. What caused the tanks to explode wasn't known.

Chad Jones, a firefighter with the Bancroft Volunteer Fire Department, said four cylinders continued to burn Monday evening and crews were letting them “burn out.” They were dousing other tanks with water to keep them from exploding, said Jones, whose station was one of several to respond to the scene.

The tanks were being stored in a bay behind the facility. Jones said that once the first tank exploded, “it was like a chain reaction,” with fireballs shooting 100 to 150 feet in the air. A nearby business evacuated, and windows were shattered in the back of the Airgas plant, Jones said.

Dave Castro, manager of the Trans-Wood trucking company about a quarter-mile from Airgas, said he felt his building shake.

“It felt like a truck ran into the building,” he said.

He said he drove toward Airgas to check on his wife, who works at another company nearby, and could see the back of the plant on fire. He said the burning area was about the size of a house, and every 15 seconds or so, a black ball of smoke would rise from a tank or drum “and explode like a firework.”

Acetylene is used in welding canisters.

Company spokesman Doug Sherman said the explosions occurred in a concrete-enclosed storage area outside the main plant. He said the injuries were not life-threatening, and the fire had been extinguished.

Jones said the company was sending a hazmat crew from Kentucky. An Occupational Safety and Health Administration crew was at the scene.

Chapman said the explosion involved residue of the gas left in the tanks. He said the blast would have been much worse if the tanks were filled. He said the injured workers suffered second- and third-degree burns.

Chapman said that the cause of the explosion is being investigated.

The injured workers were taken to Cabell Huntington Hospital for treatment. A hospital official did not know their conditions.

Airgas Inc. is based in Radnor, Pa., and has more than 15,000 employees at 1,110 locations including retail stores, gas fill plants and distribution centers.

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