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Tractor-trailer explodes as cell phone rings

1,152, 20-pound propane tanks inside truck

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The following articles appeared in The York Dispatch, written by Elizabeth Evans

January 29, 2004

Thomasville, PA- A propane explosion near Thomasville this morning shredded a tractor-trailer and was heard by people more than a dozen miles away but two Aero Energy Inc. workers standing at the back of the rig escaped with minor injuries.

People as far away as the Red Lion area called the 911 Center after hearing the 4:25 a.m. blast, which happened at Aero Energy Inc., 149 Bowman Road in Jackson Township, according to Terry McCandless Jr., fire chief of Thomasville's Lincoln No.1 Fire Co.

The explosion happened as the two Aero Energy employees were securing the trailers load bar, according to plant manager William Wagner. Inside were 1,152 propane tanks, all the 20-pound gas-grill type, which were to be shipped to Harford County, Md.

"One of the employeescell phones went off, and at that time, there was an explosion," he said. "But we're not sure thats what caused it."

McCandless said that Jackson Townships assistant fire marshal, Bruce Yingling, and a state police fire marshal are investigating to determine the cause; he confirmed they are looking at the ringing cell phone as a possible factor.

"That's all they could find so far," he said.

The two workers called a supervisor to ask whether they should drive themselves to the hospital, but were told to call 911 for an ambulance, Wagner said.

The blast threw both men, a Hanover-area man around 30 and a Gardners man around 40 backward, company president Tom Washburn said. Their names were not released this morning.

The younger man was treated and released from York Hospital; the other man was being kept for observation, Washburn said.

Wagner said one of the men suffered "what we call flash burns, which look like a bad sunburn."

Wagner said one of the cylinders apparently leaked propane into the trailer, which is what fueled the explosion. He said workers examined all 1,152 tanks after the blast.

"None of the cylinders showed any damage at all," he said.

Four hours after the explosion, Aero Energy plant workers were still moving the tanks from the twisted remains of the 53-foot box trailer, directed by Wagner. Parts of the trailer littered the ground at least 20 yards away.

"It blew apart like a banana," he told a co-worker via walkie-talkie. "The belly of the trailer is actually touching the ground."

The blast also blew out the windows of a business across the street in the Lincoln Industrial Park, McCandless said, and a man standing in that lot was knocked over, but unhurt.

Wagner said such an explosion is very rare, and that it had so much power because it was in a confined area.

"It looks worse than it is," he said. "Outside, it would've been perfectly safe."

He predicted the workers would have the area entirely cleaned up by 10 a.m.

"You'll never even know anything happened here," he said.

Washburn said the propane tanks were headed to Harford County, Md., where a recent power outage has forced residents to use alternative sources of fuel for heating and cooking.

The Jackson Township facility employs 50 people and refurbishes and distributes gas-grill cylinders. Aero Energy Inc. has been in business since 1929 and also provides home-heating services.

Investigation continues

Local fire officials are still trying to determine what caused a propane explosion at a Jackson Township business, but experts including TVs two "MythBusters" say they doubt a ringing cellular phone sparked the blast.

Two Aero Energy Inc. workers escaped with minor injuries in the 4:25 a.m. explosion at the companys 149 Bowman Road plant. Their names have not been made public.

The men were standing at the back of a 53-foot box truck trailer and securing the load of 1,152 gas grill-type propane tanks when the trailer filled with gas that had leaked from one of the cylinders exploded, plant manager William Wagner said. The men were thrown back and the trailer reduced to pieces of twisted metal.

Terry McCandless Jr., chief of Thomasvilles Lincoln No.1 Fire Co., said that immediately before the explosion, a cell phone belonging to one of the men rang, leading to speculation that the phone somehow caused it.

"We dont know if it was coincidental or what," he said. "Everythings under investigation."

McCandless said fire marshals are also looking at the possibility that static electricity sparked the blast a scenario experts say is far more likely.

"If a cell phone sparked this explosion, it would be the first documented case of this happening known to either the wireless or the petroleum industries," said Travis Larson, spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, which represents wireless carriers and manufacturers in media and government issues.

"There have been rumors and legends, but never a documented case," he said. "Experts who study this ... suggest that those explosions are caused by static electricity or sparks from metal on metal."

Urban legend Warnings about the dangers of using cell phones while refueling vehicles began circulating on the Internet in 1999, according to, the Urban Legend Reference Pages.

Versions told of incident in Indonesia where a driver was burned and his car badly damaged when his phone, coupled with gasoline fumes, touched off an explosion, the Web site reports.

Other stories followed, but none of the cases could be documented as true, according to the site. Still, some mobile-phone companies have acknowledged its theoretically possible, and have put warnings in their user manuals.

Motorolas manual for Nextel phones warns users should turn off phones "when you are in any area with a potentially explosive atmosphere." The manual claims "sparks can cause an explosion or fire resulting in bodily injury, or even death."

Co-hosts of the Discovery Channels Sunday-night show "MythBusters," Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, took on the urban legend in one of their first episodes, set to be rerun at 10 p.m. Feb. 17.

"Its one of the very few things we absolutely could not do," Savage said. "Theres a lot of electromagnetic waves around a cell phone, to be sure, but it does not generate static or any kind of spark. It was grueling it took us three days just to prove gasoline was flammable."

The pair found they could not ignite petroleum fumes in an open area.

"So we did it in a container, because out in the open its even more unlikely we could create an explosion," Hyneman said.

"We also did it in a container because we dont like being on fire," Savage quipped.

The said they were eventually able to ignite gas fumes, or "mist" but it took a burning, gas-soaked rag to do it.

"Its more likely that in reaching for his phone, (the Aero worker) may have generated a static shock with his body," Savage said.

He said the truck itself could have generated a spark, with "all the electrical things going on."

Larson, the wireless-industry spokesman, said government officials also question the likelihood of a cell phone-caused explosion.

"Weve talked to explosives experts at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and they said that igniting fumes with a cell phone is highly, highly unlikely," Larson said.

Robert Baylor, communications director for the National Propane Gas Association, said although propane is a slightly heavier substance than gasoline fumes, the same laws of physics and chemistry would apply.

He also said hes never heard of a confirmed case of a cell phone sparking an explosion and cited static electricity as one of many "ignition sources" that are far more likely to be blamed.

"Other times its as simple as turning on a light switch," he said.

Matt Bole, Harrisburg supervisor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said the federal agency is investigating, prompted by media attention.

OSHA is also looking into a prior, unrelated worker complaint that remains under investigation, he said.







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