explodes as cell phone rings
propane tanks inside truck
to read update
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
"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,
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,
Wagner said such an explosion is very
rare, and that it had so much power because it was in a confined
"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
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
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 snopes.com, the Urban Legend
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
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
"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,"
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