Old metal

Investigators are getting closer to the cause of the Feb. 2 propane tanker explosion on the Midway that damaged two buildings and led to the evacuation of hundreds of nearby residents. George Barber, an investigator with the California Highway Patrol, said the leak in the tank was from a rupture caused when the tank tipped over during an attempted U-turn. Driver James Gowen was trying to turn his big rig around in a space-restricted parking lot. Barber said Gowen tried to back up the trailer to help complete the turn. The twin trailers jackknifed, and the wheels of the front trailer got wedged under the frame of the second trailer, pulling the tank over. The tank slid along the frame of the trailer and ruptured. Propane spewed, and Gowen ran for safety.

“It seems a little unusual,” said Barber of the seemingly easy rupture in the tank. Barber explained that the tanker was made in the 1960s of tempered steel that is “more brittle” than the type used today. The trailer is made of aluminum, which is softer than the tanks, “but the age, the type of steel and impact caused it to rupture,” Barber said. This raises the question of how many of these old tankers are still on the road. “Oh I don’t think there are a lot of those in use,” Barber said. In other words, there is no accounting for how many of these potential missiles are being hauled along our highways. Barber said arson investigators are leaning toward a heater located in the Agri Electric building as being the source of the spark that led to the explosion. I’ve learned that the driver denies backing up and that the company that owns the rig, Lone Star Trucking of Bakersfield, is offering to help defray the costs of the explosion, including damage and putting hundreds of people up in hotels. The company does not want to be charged in the case and have the accident placed on its record.

On Jan. 20, Tehama County olive oil maker Lorenzo Thatcher (pictured below) and partner Susie Lawing watched their $200,000 olive press get packed onto a couple of flatbed trucks and hauled away to points unknown. One month later, Thatcher died. I don’t know if the events are connected. From what I could tell, based on a story I did in January on the couple and their business, Thatcher was a tough old guy. The first time I met him, he came into the News & Review office wearing a purple scarf wrapped around his head. He was mad, and he looked like a biker. He gave me a serious handshake, gripping my hand and pulling me off balance and toward him. It was like a wrestling move. When he took off the scarf, his looks mellowed quite a bit, but he was still pretty intense. The story I wrote about his and Lawing’s Tehama Gold Olive Oil Company recounted how a socially conscious investment firm had ended up with their equipment and 100 or so acres of olive tree orchard because the couple had fallen behind on loan payments to the firm. They were a bitter over the deal, to say the least. So when I heard that John Harrington, the head of the investment firm, was coming to town on Feb. 20 to talk about socially responsible investing, I alerted Susie and Lorenzo.

On Feb. 20, I got a call at work. The man’s voice on the other end said, “Tom, I’m going tonight.” I hesitated. I didn’t recognize the voice and had no idea what the man was talking about or where he was going. Sensing my bewilderment, Lorenzo quickly added, “It’s me, Lorenzo. Will you be there tonight?” I said, yeah, I’d be there. I wanted to see Lorenzo confront Harrington, but at the same time I felt like I’d sort of set the whole thing up and therefore couldn’t in good conscience report on it. So in the end I didn’t go. I figured I’d just give Lorenzo a call a few days later to see how things went. I never got the chance. On Monday morning, Feb. 24, while listening to David Guzzetti's radio show on KZFR, I heard the news that Lorenzo had died the night before. I was stunned. Lorenzo, 70, was a fighter who could have passed for 55. He was also philosophical. I remember him telling me that, as a farmer, he believed in the cycles of life and could handle the set-back. "Hey," he said with a shrug, "just because my tools take a hike …" Sorry I stood you up, Lorenzo.