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Static electricity blamed for California fuel fire


Paraphrased by
Steve Waldrop
June 24, 2004

Static electricity during a fuel transfer is believed to have sparked an explosion that seriously injured two workers at the Coalinga-based West Hills Oil bulk fuel distribution station in San Joaquin, CA. , fire officials reported.

The injured men were identified as Joe Garcia and Ryan Cain, both of San Joaquin. Both workers suffered first and second-degree burns to their arms and faces and were being treated at the University Medical Center's burn unit in Fresno. Garlic was listed in critical condition and Cain in serious condition.

Tony Avila, West Hills vice president, said that the workers were loading diesel fuel from a truck to a semi-truck when a flash fire started. He said the damage was confined to the truck, a loading rack and some windows and electrical lines.

The afternoon blaze was quickly followed by two explosions, witnesses said. The fire charred the tanker and a car parked nearby. Flames also threatened two larger tanks with a combined capacity of 35,000 gallons. The tanker truck had a capacity of 8,000 gallons, and fire investigators did not know how much gasoline burned in the blaze.

"It was a flash fire," said Fresno County fire Battalion Chief Kim Pennington. "It happened between the truck and the offloading or onloading in the pumping area."

Pennington said the fire was reported at 3:19 p.m., and was contained by 4:30 p.m., but that firefighters remained at the scene for hours, spraying the truck and tanks with water and foam to help them stay cool.

The fire started while one eyewitness, Rafael Alcazar, was eating lunch at a nearby restaurant. "I heard the explosion, and I saw big flames in the direction of the gas station [across the street], and I thought the whole thing was going to explode. Then I heard a second explosion, and I went running over to the truck and heard someone screaming for help." Alcazar said he called for an ambulance.

The station, which has been in operation in San Joaquin for about 30 years, is at Colorado Avenue and Eighth Street .The incident caused the evacuation of homes and businesses within a block of the plant, about 50 firefighters from the Fresno County Fire Protection District, the North Central Fire District and the California Department of Forestry fought the blaze.

Avila said a private hazardous-materials cleanup contractor was called to the plant after the fire was extinguished and was working to clean up the mess.

California Occupational Safety and Health Agency investigators also were at the scene.

"We will be looking at the procedures that were followed and the training to make sure employees were properly trained to conduct their work, and we will have to look at emergency response procedures to sure everything was done properly and efficiently," said Dean Fryer, a San Francisco-based spokesman for Cal-OSHA. "We also will look at a malfunction with equipment that could have led to this explosion.

The amount of damages will likely exceed $350,000 according to Avila.



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