At least eight critically injured in Florida gas-plant explosion

Fire chief tells reporters, blasts likely caused by "human or equipment errors"

Firefighters work to extinguish the remains of a propane plant after explosions in Tavares, Florida on July 30, 2013

At least eight people were injured late Monday night after a series of explosions that lasted for nearly 30 minutes rocked a central Florida propane-gas plant, causing a fire that spread and took more than three hours to extinguish.

The explosions occurred at the Blue Rhino propane plant in Tavares – about 40 miles northwest of Orlando – around 11 p.m. as a crew of 24 to 26 people worked an overnight shift, said John Herrell of the Lake County Sheriff's Office, speaking to reporters at a news conference early Tuesday morning.

On Tuesday morning, Tavares Fire Chief Richard Keith told reporters at the scene that the explosions were the likely result of "human or equipment errors," the Orlando Sentinel reported.

Three male victims were airlifted and admitted to Orlando Regional Medical Center for burns, a spokeswoman for the hospital told Al Jazeera. Another person injured in the explosion was listed in critical condition at University of Florida Health Shands Hospital.

Herrell said some others drove themselves to area hospitals. All of the injured were employees of the plant, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

Tavares Battalion Commander Eric Wages told The Associated Press that 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.

The Blue Rhino plant refilled propane tanks typically used for barbecues and other uses. Herrell said there were about 53,000 propane canisters inside the plant – each weighing an estimated 20 pounds.

"Apparently they store the propane cylinders in different parts on the property, in different areas of the plant, and as the fire continued to spread, there were more and more explosions," Herrell said.

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 added.

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."

Video footage on WESH-TV in Orlando showed plant trucks used to transport propane tanks burning out of control. The fire sent plumes of smoke into the air hours after the blast. Emergency crews could also be seen massing nearby.

"I went out in the back yard and the sky was just lit up red, just vibrant red, with a huge plume of smoke," local resident Vance Yokem told Al Jazeera's Natasha Ghoneim. "It was just constant explosions."

An evacuation zone measuring one-mile was initially set, but later reduced to half a mile, Herrell said. No injuries have been reported from residents in the neighborhood, who were later allowed to return to their homes.

Monday night's incident in Florida marks the latest in a series of explosions, some deadly, at U.S. plants this year.  

The deadliest incident came April 17, when a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas killed 15 people and injured 200 others. An explosion at a Louisiana chemical plant in June left one person dead and dozens more injured.

The Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency that investigates chemical accidents, said last month that the Environmental Protection Agency has lacked urgency following the deadly blast in Texas.

The agency told the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works that the decades-old standards used to regulate potentially dangerous fertilizer chemicals are far weaker than those used by other countries.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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