State wraps up investigation into Tavares gas plant explosions

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LAKE COUNTY, Fla. - State and federal officials wrapped up their inspection Wednesday of the damaged Blue Rhino propane plant in Tavares.

Officials said they  still don’t have a clear picture of what caused the plant to go up in flames Monday.

"We have a five-acre footprint of badly burned area and all that was inspected," said Maj. Brandon Ball of the State Fire Marshal's Office. "Nothing was uncovered that would indicate a crime was committed here."

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives agents spoke about the effort to find the cause of the giant blaze that engulfed and ignited tens of thousands of propane tanks just before midnight Monday.

"They're looking at records, they're looking at any video surveillance, anything that helps them get a closer look at what took place on a particular incident," said ATF Special Agent Kevin Richardson. The team for ATF is assisting the State Fire Marshal's Office, and includes two investigators who also probed a fertilizer explosion that devastated the town of West, Texas in April.

Agents said they have already narrowed their focus to a specific area of the Tavares plant.

"I believe, through the interviews, they do have a focus point to go to," said Richardson.

Ball said he has viewed security videos from different angles at the plant. He said the video possibly shows where the fiery explosion started but he did not give any more details.

Tavares Fire Chief Richard Keith said officials don't suspect sabotage caused the explosions, and sources close to the investigation told WFTV that one of the possible causes of the explosion could have been when a spark ignited after a forklift worker drove by while another worker was releasing gas from a propane tank.

There are reports that a maintenance worker rescued a forklift operator who was on fire.

The three 30,000-gallon propane holding tanks at the Blue Rhino facility are of great concern now to residents who live nearby, and to the city of Tavares.

The flooding system to keep those tanks cool and prevent them from exploding, is a manual system that was not activated Monday night as workers scrambled to get to safety.

Monday night's fire did not get close enough to impact those tanks, but Wednesday evening the city manager told WFTV that the city does have the power to force Blue Rhino to install an automated deluge system for those tanks. He said they will use that power.

Nearby residents told WFTV's Kathi Belich that they are getting legal advice as to how to get the plant shut down. The city manager said that the city is not joining that effort.

 

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