Investigators search for answers in plant explosion

MINDEN - Five men seriously burned in a plant explosion appeared to be doing exactly what the plant is designed for - depressurizing aerosol cans, an investigator said Tuesday.

"During that process leakage of the propane or butane gas used to fuel the cans occurred and ignited," said Capt. Terry Taylor, East Fork Fire District investigator. "We are not sure what the spark was that ignited the gas, but we have eliminated smoking."

Taylor said Monday night four of the five employees were depressurizing cans at Depressurized Technologies International Inc. in the Meridian Business Park when the explosion occurred. A fifth employee entered the room as it was happening, and several smaller blasts followed as aerosol cans exploded.

The southeast corner of the single-story building sustained about $50,000 in damage and one-quarter of the metal roof was blown off by the blast, Taylor said.

"But the real damage was to the victims," he added.

The names of the victims, suffering from second- and third-degree burns, are being withheld pending notification of next of kin. Two of the men were taken by helicopter to University Medical Center's critical burn unit in Las Vegas, where they were listed in critical condition.

The other three victims are at UC Davis in Sacramento. Two were in serious condition and one was in guarded condition. Taylor said all five men from Gardnerville suffered "360 degree burns" from head to toe.

Interviews with the victims have been hampered by their conditions and limited English ability. Taylor said Fire Department investigators in Sacramento managed to interview one of the victims there.

The building had a functioning sprinkler system that went off when the fire began, Taylor said.

"We found evidence of personal protective equipment like ventilators, eye protection and spill suits. Those things were located in the building. There was also a ventilation system in the building. The question becomes, 'How did we get enough of this gas product to create an explosion?'" he said.

"In a situation like this where you have lighter-than-air vapor, the fire and explosion are ignited simultaneously and it can be ignited just by a flipping a light switch."

DTI has occupied the 4-year-old building at the west end of Park Place off Airport Road for about six months, Taylor said.

Owner Walter Gonzalez declined to comment, saying only that he was, "upset and exhausted," and his employees have insurance.

Taylor said Gonzalez appeared distraught and was helping family members of the victims get to the hospitals.

Investigators from the Office of Safety and Health Administration were on scene and are expected to return today, as are fire investigators.


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