Tank rupture led to propane explosion
Investigators looking into the cause of the Feb. 2 propane explosion on the Midway in south Chico said one of the trailer tanks carrying the volatile gas received a 6- to 8-inch gouge when the driver of the truck pulling them attempted to make a sharp turn in a shallow parking lot.
“Apparently the back trailer fell over [during the turn] and got punctured on the frame of the front trailer,” said Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey. “Then something caused a spark.”
The driver, James Gowen of Sacramento, tried to make the turn in the parking lot in front of two Midway businesses near Speedway Avenue. Gowen had missed his scheduled destination, Coast Gas Supply Inc. on Valine Lane, off Park Avenue. As he was making the turn to head back to Chico, he told investigators, he heard a “whoosh,” and when got out to investigate saw propane leaking from a gash in the tank.
The tank exploded less than a minute later as the driver dashed through a neighboring orchard to escape. The fireball from the explosion scorched the businesses that share the parking lot and blackened trees and telephone polls on the other side of the Midway. Fortunately, and almost miraculously, nobody was injured.
The truck is owned by the Bakersfield-based Lone Star Trucking. Gowen, Ramsey said, had been driving for the company for only five weeks. The cause of the spark that caused the propane to blow is still under investigation but has apparently been narrowed down to either the truck’s idling engine or a heater in Agri Electric, one of the businesses damaged by the blast. The other business was Baird Roofing.
Ten days after the explosion, both businesses were open but undergoing cleanup and repair. The parking lot is being repaved, as the heat from the fire melted and powdered the blacktop.
Inside the roofing company, Susanne Baird’s office showed surprisingly little damage compared to what the outside of the building looked like. The front office windows had to be replaced, but the side windows were protected, she said, by a row of oleanders, now burned and gone, that grew along the metal-sided building.
The houseplants along that side of the office are dead from the heat, the window on the front door is bubbled and warped, a skylight in the roof melted and there is an acrid smell in the air.
On the day of the blast, Baird said, police wouldn’t let her get any closer than Entler Avenue, a few miles to the south on the Midway.
“I was mostly concerned about whether anyone was here,” she said, pointing out that though the business is closed on Sundays, the workers often come in to pick up roofing supplies.
“We were not allowed back in until Monday afternoon,” she said. “We got escorted in and stayed just long enough to look around and board up the windows and leave.”
She said the first two days after the business opened she was inundated with investigators and insurance adjusters coming in and asking questions. While the roofers have been able to carry on, she has fallen behind in her office work.
She said damage estimates to the structure run between $75,000 and $100,000.
Baird said she talked briefly with the man who hauled away the remains of the tanker truck.
“He said he’s seen tanks like this roll and fall distances and survive,” she said. “But this one ruptured when the truck jackknifed during a turn.”
Ramsey acknowledged that dangerous chemicals are constantly in our midst.
“These are the things that are scary,” he said. “We have hazardous materials driven through our streets and along our railroad tracks on a daily basis.”
Most people, he said, never think about such things “until they hear that boom in the distance.”
Blame for the accident—the company, the driver or both—should be assigned within the next week, Ramsey said.