ON AIR NOW

LISTEN NOW

Weather

cloudy-day Created with Sketch.
71°
Overcast
H 86° L 65°
  • cloudy-day Created with Sketch.
    71°
    Current Conditions
    Mostly Sunny. H 86° L 65°
  • clear-day Created with Sketch.
    85°
    Afternoon
    Mostly Sunny. H 86° L 65°
  • partly-cloudy-tstorms-day Created with Sketch.
    80°
    Evening
    Sct Thunderstorms. H 87° L 68°
LISTEN
PAUSE
ERROR

The latest top stories

00:00 | 00:00

LISTEN
PAUSE
ERROR

The latest traffic report

00:00 | 00:00

LISTEN
PAUSE
ERROR

The latest forecast

00:00 | 00:00

Local
Investigators search for cause of propane plant explosion
Close

Investigators search for cause of propane plant explosion

Investigators search for cause of propane plant explosion

Investigators search for cause of propane plant explosion

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

A series of explosions rocked a Lake County propane gas plant, igniting a 200-foot high fireball, and sent the sound of "boom, after boom, after boom" through the neighborhood around it.

In all, eight people were injured, with at least four in critical condition.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott met with some of 200 first responders on Tuesday and was briefed on the investigation.

"What will the state assure people it will do, perhaps to prevent something like this in the future?" Scott was asked. 

"You know what happens, when anything like this happens, is you have to stop and say, 'What can we do to make sure it doesn't happen again?'" said Scott.

John Herrell, of the Lake County Sheriff's Office, said early Tuesday that no one died despite massive blasts that ripped through the Blue Rhino propane plant property late Monday night.

Tavares Fire Chief Richard Keith said officials don't suspect sabotage caused the explosions, and sources close to the investigation told WFTV that one of the possible causes of the explosion could have been when a spark ignited after a forklift worker drove by while another worker was releasing gas from a propane tank.

"In my 36 years in the fire service, I've never seen anything like this," said Keith.


Photos: Blue Rhino gas plant explosions in Tavares

Photos: Before/After images from Blue Rhino gas plant explosion

Video: Aerials: Propane tank explosions in Lake Co.


Officials initially scrambled to find more than a dozen employees after the explosions, and neighboring houses were evacuated, but no damage to them was reported.

"Management is comfortable saying all of those they knew were there tonight have been accounted for," Herrell said.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is at the scene investigating. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has opened an investigation, officials said.

One ATF investigator said during a walkthrough early Tuesday, one of the larger outside tanks sprung a leak and had to be addressed.

More ATF agents, including their main expert who worked on the Texas plant explosion earlier this year, are headed to Lake County for investigations. Officials said they're giving the workers time to calm down and remember what happened before they start interviews. 

One person injured in the explosion was listed in critical condition at University of Florida Health Shands Hospital and three others were listed in critical condition at Orlando Regional Medical Center.

Herrell said others drove themselves to area hospitals.

Doctors couldn't give specifics on the injuries of the three patients at ORMC, but the director of the burn unit told Channel 9 his staff has what is called the "golden hour" to get the patients in, resuscitated and to start certain procedures.

The victims' airways can also be burned from heat and from toxins they might have breathed in, officials said, so they often needed to be put on a ventilator.

And with third-degree burns, the skin can be destroyed not just on the surface but the layers of injury can be very deep, said Dr. Howard Smith.

"The full thickness of the skin is destroyed, usually requiring surgery and a grafting and that probably may be, that's what we worry may be required for these patients," said Smith.


Video: Social Media plays big role in WFTV gas plant explosion coverage

Video: Blue Rhino explosions could have been worse


Tavares Fire Department Battalion Commander Eric Wages said five workers walked up to a command center firefighters set up near the plant Monday night with skin hanging off their arms, torso and faces. He said their arms were outstretched and they were in complete shock.

Blake Cottle lives in Mount Dora, about 10 miles away from where the propane tanks blew up on 300 County Road 448.

"I have heard tons of booms for at least 30 minutes," Cottle told WFTV.

"As you listened to it more, it sounded like a lot of explosions. The sky was bright orange and it was flashing," WFTV viewer Ashley McCormick said. "There were huge fireballs shooting up into the sky. And obviously lots of smoke."

"I grabbed my jacket and cat and went to the car. [I] didn't even have time to get shoes," said resident Jerri Wohlers.

Wohlers lives directly behind the Blue Rhino plant. She said the sound of propane tanks exploding woke her from a deep sleep, Monday night.

"It sounded like cannons," Wohlers said. "It was nuts."

Burnt and bent pieces of propane tanks littered her property.

WFTV also spoke with resident Mariah Ryle, who said, "The whole house shook and it was just explosion after explosion. The fire was actually so tall that I walked out my front door and just saw, like my neighbors across the street, I saw it over their roof."

Herrell said an evacuation zone was initially a 1-mile radius, but had been reduced to a half-mile radius.

The evacuation was later lifted and residents were able to return to their homes.

The Blue Rhino plant, which is northwest of Orlando, refills propane tanks typically used gas grills and other home uses. There were some 53,000 20-pound canisters at the plant on Monday.

Smoke still billowed Tuesday morning from a storage container on the property, which consists of a couple of warehouses next to each other. The parking lot was littered with thousands of blackened 20-pound propane containers.

Nearby, three 33,000-pound tanks of propane sat untouched. Lake County Battalion Chief Chris Croughwell said the hoses designed to spray water on the large tanks in case of fire, did not go off as planned because they had to be manually activated.

"Most sane people don't stick around for an event like this," he said.

Tavares Mayor Robert Wolfe said Tuesday that he was surprised to learn the hoses at the plant had to be manually activated. If Blue Rhino reopens the plant, Wolfe said he plans to raise the safety issue.

"That way, it's fail-safe," Wolfe said. "We're lucky those tanks didn't explode."

One of the large tanks had a small leak that was detected mid-morning, so fire officials poured water on it and later began draining it, Wolfe said. The threat was considered minimal and no evacuation was ordered, he said.

The Florida Division of Emergency Management responded overnight and briefed Gov. Rick Scott.

Gene Williams, a third-shift maintenance worker at the plant, said he was at the back of the warehouse when he heard two loud explosions. Most of the workers were inside the facility, but there were about five in the parking lot.

When he went to look outside, there was a fireball about 20-feet-by-20-feet about 100 yards from the plant's loading dock in an area where the 20-pound propane canisters are stored on plastic pallets.

After that, a forklift driver stumbled into the building. He had flesh hanging off his hands, and his legs and face were burned. Williams said he got the man in a van as the cylinders from the 20-pound tanks starting falling down around them.

He said they were doing repairs and painting the tanks when one of the paint lines had broken, but it was repaired. The workers were getting ready to go home when the explosion happened.

Based on what the forklift operator told him, the explosion was likely caused by a "combination of human error and bad practices, possibly. I don't want to speculate any further, that's what the forklift driver was telling me."

Williams said the forklift driver told him, "'I did what they told me to do, I did what they told me to do, and then this happened.' Something in that area must have triggered it. I don't know if he did something or something else triggered it."

Williams said they were able to cut off propane to the three big tanks, but they weren't able to get to the switch for the cooling hoses.

"It was too violent, too hot, to get in there and turn them on," he said.

Williams said one of the injured people was struck by a car trying to run across the road.


Story: Cop rescues worker hit by car as he fled gas-plant explosion


The Florida Highway Patrol confirmed that 29-year-old Leesburg resident Kaghy Sam was struck by an SUV driven by 72-year-old Gene Batson on a road near the Blue Rhino plant.

A statement from the FHP said Sam was running on the road "due to a large fire and several explosions" just before 11 p.m. Monday and "ran into the direct path" of Batson's vehicle.

Sam was flown to Ocala Regional Medical Center with serious injuries.

No charges were filed in the accident.

Blue Rhino is a subsidiary of Kansas-based national propane provider Ferrellgas. Spokesman Scott Brockelmeyer said Tuesday he didn't have information available about the safety water hoses.

"It's as sobering a situation as you can possibly imagine," Brockelmeyer said. "We have folks who are injured, and we've got Blue Rhino and Ferrellgas employees across the country who are keeping them in their prayers and sending good vibes their way."

Brockelmeyer said there were 14 full-time employees and 10 part-time workers in the plant when the explosions occurred Monday night.

Ferrellgas paid a $2,295 fine in November 2011 following an OSHA inspection that found a component at the end of an air hose used in the consumer tank refurbishing process was not present.

Brockelmeyer said the company corrected the issue and added that "the process is performed in area away from where the tanks are filled... so no product was being processed in that area."

Croughwell said firefighters who responded to the initial fire had to wait to enter plant site because conditions were so dangerous. Just as they were finally about to go in, four tractor-trailers parked next to the large propane tanks caught fire.

If the large tanks exploded, Croughwell said, "it would have wiped us out."

Keith said the explosions shook his house several miles from the plant.

"It truly sounded like a car hit our house," he said.

Marni Whitehead, 33, who lives less than a mile from the plant, said she was in bed ready to go to sleep when she heard a loud boom.

She ran outside and saw other neighbors outside and then they saw the explosions.

"We knew right away it was the plant, the propane plant," Whitehead said. "After that, it was just sort of panic."

Whitehead likened the explosions to Fourth of July fireworks.

"And it was just boom after boom after boom," she said.

Herrell said officials believe the fire was contained and wouldn't spread to another part of the plant.

According to the Leesburg Daily Commercial, the plant was built in 2004 and employs fewer than 50 people.

Read More

The Latest News Headlines

  • The Sheriff's office in Snohomish County, Washington, is asking for the public's help to identify two men who robbed an Everett woman on Wednesday morning in her own home. According to police, the men broke into the home by kicking in the doors. >> Read more trending news  Once inside, the two confronted the victim and ripped off her jewelry. Anyone with information is asked to call at 425-388-5258.
  • On March 24, a surge of photos posted by everyday people and celebrities such as Taraji P. Henson and LL Cool J on social media show images with text claiming that 14 girls have disappeared in the last 24 hours in Washington, D.C., and the images have continued to pick up steam.   >> Read more trending news WRC reported however, that the information in those images is not entirely true.  Here are things to know about the missing teens in Washington: Police say that 14 teen girls have not disappeared from Washington in one day. The girls pictured in the viral image went missing at different times. Relisha Tenau Rudd, pictured on the far left of the image, was last seen in Washington on March 1, 2014. Pheonix Coldon was last seen December 18, 2011 in St. Louis. Shaniah Boyd was last seen in Washington. Makayla Randall, pictured on the far right, has been missing since October 1, 2012 and was last seen in Oak Park, Missouri. WRC reported that police have changed their method of communicating information about missing persons. There has been no increase in the number of missing people.  The Metropolitan Police Department has changed how it shares information on missing persons. “We've just been posting them on social media more often,” Metropolitan Police Department spokeswoman Rachel Reid said. Chanel Dickerson, commander of the Washington police’s Youth and Family Services Division, told The Washington Post that the 211 people reported missing in January reflected  better reporting by families, not an increase in missing teens. Many of the missing teens are black or Latino. Outrage over the missing persons comes from a perception that people of color who are missing are not covered in the media as often as white missing persons. Derrica Wilson, the co-founder and chief executive of the Black and Missing Foundation, which works to raise awareness of missing people of color, told The Huffington Post 40 percent of missing persons in the U.S. are people of color. Police say there is not a known link between the missing persons and human trafficking. Police spokeswoman Karimah Bilal told WRC the teens reported missing so far in 2017 left voluntarily. WUSA reported that since many teens left on their own, Amber Alerts have not been issued for them. “Because of the number of releases, there have been concerns that young girls in the District of Columbia are victims of human trafficking or have been kidnapped,” Bilal said. “We look at every case closely to make sure that doesn't happen, but to my knowledge, that hasn't been a factor in any of our missing person cases,” Bilal said.  Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser and Washington police told WUSA they confirmed that there is no link between the missing persons and human trafficking. Although there is no reported  link, human trafficking is an issue in D.C. The D.C. Human Trafficking Task Force was formed in 2004 to find victims of trafficking and prosecute those who are trafficking victims. Other nongovernmental organizations have also been established to combat the issue. Those who run away or leave voluntarily may still be in danger. “We need to find out the underlying reasons that so many young people in the District of Columbia have chosen to leave home voluntarily because they feel they have no other alternatives,” Dickerson told WRC. The National Conference of State Legislatures said that runaway youths face a higher likelihood and risk of anxiety, depression, suicide, and engaging in survival sex, human trafficking and dealing drugs to meet basic needs, like food, clothing and shelter. The also have an increased likelihood of participating in drug use. Research from the National Runaway Safeline says family conflict and being thrown out of the house -- sometimes because of a child’s sexual orientation -- are reasons why youths may run away. “One person missing is one person too many, especially when you’re talking about our young people,” Dickerson said at a Wednesday town hall. Lawmakers are calling on the FBI to investigate many of the missing persons cases. The Associated Press reported that Congressional Black Caucus chairman Cedric Richmond, D-La., and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia in Congress, sent a letter Tuesday that called for Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director James Comey to devote time to investigating the number of missing children in Washington and “determine whether these developments are an anomaly or whether they are indicative of an underlying trend that must be addressed.” “Ten children of color went missing in our nation's capital in a period of two weeks and at first garnered very little media attention. That's deeply disturbing,” the letter sent to the Justice Department said. Members of the Washington community are demanding answers. Community members in Washington and across the country are demanding answers and action from officials and media out of frustration over lack of media coverage of missing black women and girls. A 2010 study from Pace University found black missing children and missing girls were “significantly underrepresented” in TV news coverage. A 2015 study from West Virginia University replicated those findings and showed that those groups were underrepresented compared to the 2014 FBI-reported proportions in which black people and females are reported as missing. That FBI report on missing-person entries showed 37 percent of those reported missing under the age of 21 were black. It found that white children who are missing are underrepresented in TV news. Members of the community met at a town hall Wednesday and WUSA9 reported that many were frustrated and disappointing with the city’s response. “Why are we just finding out?” a person asked.  “I was astounded when I looked at the number of missing African-American females,” Dickerson told WTTG Thursday. “I'm not trying to minimize that other people aren’t missing, but they looked like me and so I just wanted to make sure that every investigation focused on every child thesame way and we get the same exposure to everyone regardless of your race or where you live.” The number of missing persons in Washington changes daily. The Metropolitan Police Department reports the number of open and closed missing person cases and has them broken down by year, critical and non-critical, and juvenile and adult. Recent data from the department shows a decrease in reported missing person cases from 2,433 in 2015 to 2,242 in 2016.  The regularly updated list of missing persons, including flyers of missing persons, are on the Metropolitan Police Department website.  Tweets from the Metropolitan Police Department have been removed from this story as the department reported some critical missing teens have been found. 
  • The Clay County Sheriff's Office is asking for the public's help identifying an auto burglary suspect.   According to detectives, a male wearing a hooded sweatshirt and gloves targeted several unlocked vehicles in the Argyle area of Orange Park early Wednesday morning.   We're told all of the vehicles targeted were on Golden Pond Boulevard.   If you recognize the suspect, you're urged to call the sheriff's office at (904) 264-6512.
  • Clay County Schools said Fleming Island High School is currently under a precautionary boil water advisory for the next 48 to 72 hours. Water service to the school was temporarily interrupted for the emergency repair of a broken water line on Wednesday, according to our partner Action News Jax. Restrooms are working, but the school district said students are urged to bring their own water bottles to drink during the day. The school district said it will also provide drinking water until the boil water advisory is lifted.
  • He had been found incompetent to stand trial three times, but Joshua Goldberg may now be ready to face the federal terror-related charge he’s accused of.  The Orange Park man was indicted in September 2015. Court documents claim Goldberg sent information on how to make a bomb to a person he believed was going to plant the bomb at a September 11th memorial event in Kansas City, Missouri. Goldberg’s instructions even included how to inflict the most damage with the device- like dipping shrapnel in rat poison- according to the indictment. The person speaking with Goldberg was actually a confidential informant.  Prosecutors say Goldberg admitted to giving the instructions, but he believed the person he was speaking with wasn’t going to follow through. The indictment says Goldberg planned to tell law enforcement if the device was actually planted, making himself a hero.  Goldberg was first ruled incompetent to stand trial in December 2015, then again in June and December 2016. He has been undergoing treatment at Federal Medical Center in Butner, NC for autism spectrum disorder and major depressive disorder. During a status hearing Wednesday, a judge mentioned that a competency report had been received in which doctors who have been treating Goldberg say he is now competent to stand trial.  A competency hearing must still be held where a judge will make a formal determination. Goldberg’s attorney, Paul Shorstein, tells WOKV News that he is unsure at this time whether he will dispute the doctor’s report. “I really can’t say one way or another. I mean, I’ve read the report. I need to talk to him, talk to his family,” Shorstein says. He plans to know more by the competency hearing.  The US Attorney’s Office confirms another status conference has been set for April 7th, at which time they will set a date for the competency hearing. 

The Latest News Videos