August 3, 2011

Building, 3 houses destroyed in Butler County propane explosions

Officials said that one of the injured Global Propane workers, 40-year-old Jeffrey S. Burnham of Wichita, died Tuesday night of injuries received in the explosion and fire.

Firefighters had pulled to within about 100 yards of a giant propane fire Tuesday afternoon, assessing the dangers.

With so much fuel feeding them, the flames sounded like a jet engine.

Through a tree line, a man came toward them, carrying another man over his shoulder.

“This man, he came out of this burning pit” carrying the other man away from the flames, Butler County Fire District 3 Firefighter Angela Woolley said Wednesday, recalling the scene along Butler Road south of Andover.

“He tried so hard to save him.”

Woolley learned that the man who was being carried later died after suffering burns in the explosions and fire at Global Propane, 13323 SW Butler Road. The man who did the carrying was one of two other people who were injured.

“If anyone is the hero, he is it,” Woolley said.

Officials said that the injured worker, 40-year-old Jeffrey S. Burnham of Wichita, died Tuesday night at Via Christi on St. Francis.

Jeremy Kessler, 25, of Wichita, was in serious condition Wednesday at the hospital’s burn center. The third man, Barry Long of Newton, was treated and released. All three were employees of Global Propane.

The fire also destroyed three houses and a commercial building.

On Wednesday, a state fire investigator told The Eagle that it appears that propane canisters were being filled at the time of the initial fire or explosion.

A series of explosions — some witnesses heard up to 40 separate blasts — shot 100-pound propane canisters like bottle rockets in all directions along the heavily traveled road. One canister landed al-most 1,000 feet away.

It’s amazing that the toll wasn’t worse, Ron Harris said Wednesday.

“We just had God here, everywhere,” said Harris, a special agent with the Kansas State Fire Marshal’s Office.

What happened

At the scene Wednesday afternoon, Harris gave this account of the fire, based on a preliminary investigation:

The fire appears to have started at a Global fill station where a truck had a mix of empty and filled canisters.

At least two workers were present as someone was filling containers, then there was a release of propane, Harris said.

“As a result of a release, we had a fire.”

He doesn’t yet know what caused the release or the fire.

“We may never know,” he said.

The facility’s main propane container, which can hold up to 18,000 gallons, had been filled Tuesday morning, he said. Such containers are usually filled to about 85 percent of capacity, he said.

Butler County Sheriff Kelly Herzet said he fully realized the dangers Tuesday afternoon as he drove toward the fire.

Herzet saw 100-pound propane cylinders shooting all di-rections into the air. The large projectiles, the shrapnel, the spreading flames — and the potential for a devastating explosion if the large container blew — convinced him to call for an evacuation for a mile around the site.

One cylinder landed in a tree. Others lay scattered across charred yards and in a field across the street from the propane facility.

The exploded cylinders looked like beer cans that had been squashed, ruptured.

Fortunately, Herzet said, the big tank, which contained about 16,000 gallons, didn’t explode.

The fire, which was spread partly by burning grass, charred an area about a half-mile long and hundreds of yards wide in places.

Flames spread across Butler Road and destroyed one house to the north. On the west side of the road, where the Global facility is located, the flames skipped over the Global office and outbuildings and spared one house, but gutted a commercial building that reportedly held antiques and burned two houses to the ground.

To Herzet, still monitoring the scene Wednesday, it looked like a war zone.

Family lost house, dog

The Cook family had lived at one of the houses for about 16 years.

Brandon Cook, 23, was cleaning the yard Tuesday when he heard explosions. He realized it was coming from the propane facility a few doors to the south.

He wasn’t too worried until he heard one extra loud blast and saw what he described as “a mushroom cloud of flames.”

He ran to his truck and started driving away, stopped, turned around and hurried back into the house to get the family’s two Pekingese dogs, Gracie and Biff.

He went from room to room to make sure no one else was home.

He managed to save Gracie. But Biff kept running away.

“I didn’t want to risk my own life trying to chase him around the house,” he recalled.

When he was a boy, he suffered severe burns on his arm from an accident involving a propane torch. He knew what fire can do.

Cook had heard 30 to 40 explosions by the time he fled with Gracie.

Wednesday, he stood near the blackened foundation of what had been the family’s three-bedroom house. His face beaded with sweat, he motioned toward the ashes, and said of Biff, “He’s still in there somewhere.”

The only thing that survived the fire was a chimenea he made in the seventh grade.

Cook, an auto mechanic, estimated he had lost about $10,000 worth of tools.

His mother lost irreplaceable things — old family pictures and mementos.

Still, he and his father, Troy Cook, felt thankful that the family, other than Biff, was not hurt.

Troy Cook’s two young grandchildren had been at the house until about an hour before the fire. Recently, he put up a swing set for them.

On Wednesday, the metal skeleton of the swing set stood in the yard, but every plastic piece had melted into stringy sheets. The hot wind smelled of burned plastic.

Troy Cook said he was thankful that his 19-year-old daughter was at work at the time of the spreading flames.

“Usually, she would have been asleep.”

Contributing: Stan Finger of The Eagle

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