Feb 15, 2007
Statement from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board of Jeffrey Wanko, Lead Investigator for the Ghent Propane Explosion
The CSB investigation continues into the cause or causes of the tragic propane explosion at the Little General Store in Ghent, West Virginia, on January 30, 2007.
At this point, we have completed our initial interviews, with the exception of the victims still in the hospital in the process of recovering. We plan to interview them as soon as they are physically able.
We have secured key evidence, including the propane tanks, piping, valves, and other items. These will be examined and tested under strict protocols that are being prepared.
We have made numerous document requests of various parties who are cooperating.
We have established the following preliminary information; I emphasize that these findings are preliminary and are based on information gained from witnesses and observations made to date.
While we want to keep the media and the public informed, please understand we do not have all the answers at this early date and we are not in a position to speculate on causes or unknown details at this point.
On the morning of January 30th, a technician working for Appalachian Heating (a company that had a business arrangement with Thompson Gas) was onsite at the Little General Store in Ghent, preparing to switch propane service to Thompson Gas from a previous propane vendor, Ferrellgas. As part of the process, the technician was to transfer propane from the Ferrellgas tank to the newly-installed one. The old tank was located against the store's outside rear wall. The new tank was installed about ten feet away.
At some point while preparing for the propane transfer- and it is not yet clear exactly when - propane began flowing out of the Ferrellgas tank next to the store. It was an uncontrollable release and the technician was unable to stop the flow. He called 911 at 10:40 a.m.
Two EMT responders arrived in an ambulance, joined by two volunteer firefighters who arrived in separate vehicles.
The second Appalachian Heating technician arrived to assist with the release.
The responding fire department personnel reported a billowing vapor or mist around the tank closest to the building. The cloud was striking the eaves of the building and traveling along the ground.
Witnesses said the store was in the process of closing. Someone posted a note on the door which read to the effect of "Closed due to gas leak." One of the EMTs was warning people away from the property but the employees had not evacuated at the time of the explosion.
The fire department dispatcher then received a report of a large explosion at 10:53 a.m., thirteen (13) minutes after the first 911 call reporting the propane release.
The four victims who were killed - the two Appalachian Heating employees and two emergency responders - were located in the area near the two tanks next to the building. Of the five victims who suffered serious injuries, four were either inside the store and the fifth, Mr. Caldwell, was in the parking lot approaching the tanks.
That is what we know of the timeline at this point. Again, we have more witnesses to interview who may shed more light on events during the morning the propane service turnover was to take place.
Examination of the two propane tanks did not reveal any obvious cracks or ruptures; the tanks will be tested to confirm this. The CSB will be inspected and testing the tanks and tank components in an attempt to determine why there was an uncontrolled release.
The CSB wishes to again thank West Virginia's fire marshal for his ongoing support, the Ghent Volunteer Fire Department, ATF, local officials, the Little General Store company, the gas companies, and others for their cooperation. Our thoughts remain with the victims' loved ones and we wish those who have been injured a good recovery.
I will now take questions - again, let me repeat that we do not know all the answers yet, and are not far enough along to give you an analysis of what happened, so bear with us.
END OF STATEMENT
The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. The agency's board members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. CSB investigations look into all aspects of chemical accidents, including physical causes such as equipment failure as well as inadequacies in safety management systems, regulations, and industry standards.
The Board does not issue citations or fines but does make safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations, labor groups, and regulatory agencies such as OSHA and EPA. Visit our website, www.csb.gov.
Reporters should contact CSB media representative Sandy Gilmour at (202) 261-7613 /(202) 251-5496 (cell).