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Fiery Explosions Rock Florida Propane Tank Plant

A series of fiery explosions ravaged a Blue Rhino propane gas plant in central Florida's Lake County late Monday night, forcing nearby residents to be evacuated. The detonations reportedly lasted for some 30 minutes and were heard as far as 10 miles away. A fire at the plant raged into the early morning hours.

Update at 11:10 a.m. ET: Work Continues; No Sign Of Sabotage

A first-hand view of the scene comes from Central Florida NPR member station WMFE, as reporter Amy Green says the police have reopened the road close to the complex. But the area is still busy with investigators and repair crews, she says.

"I pulled into a strip-mall of businesses, and you can see debris in the parking lot. I assume it's debris that was thrown through the air in the blast."

As for the stores in that mall, Green says, "It looks like most, if not all of them, are without power."

Green says some utility poles had evidently caught fire; crews were working to replace them.

And in the latest information from local officials, the number of people wounded in the incident now stands at eight.

While the cause of the outburst is under investigation, Tavares Fire Chief Richard Keith tells The Orlando Sentinel that the fire seems to have begun due to an error, saying that "we don't think there was any act of sabotage or anything like that."

Our original post continues:

At least seven employees at the plant in Tavares, near Orlando, were taken to the hospital; four of them were in critical condition, The Orlando Sentinel reports. As of Tuesday morning, residents were being allowed to return to their houses. The cause of the explosions is under investigation.

As of 2 a.m. ET, the plant's operators said they knew the status and whereabouts of all their employees and that there were no fatalities.

"Management is comfortable saying all of those they knew were there tonight have been accounted for," The Associated Press quotes John Herrell of the Lake County Sheriff's Office as saying.

Residents reported seeing propane tanks rocketing into the sky and exploding. Blue Rhino provides full propane tanks at kiosks at gas stations and grocery stores; their tanks often fuel backyard grills and fish fryers.

But Monday night, many of those tanks and the trucks used to ferry them to businesses were caught up in flames. Herrell says the plant normally has 53,000 propane tanks, each of them weighing 20 pounds.

"There were propane tanks flying straight up in the sky and just exploding," resident Mariah Ryle, who lives a quarter of a mile from the facility, tells local news station WFTV. "Some of it actually looked like fireworks. That's what I actually thought it was, at first, was fireworks."

"You could feel the heat at the end of our subdivision," resident Kevin Scharlau tells The Sentinel. "You could see the gas-grill propane tanks shooting into the air."

Inside the plant, an inferno soared above the treeline, as videos posted by local TV stations show.

"Residents for miles away could feel the explosions for hours as the tanks detonated every few seconds," NPR Southern Bureau Chief Russell Lewis reported for our Newscast unit. "TV news helicopter pilots were forced to keep more than a mile away from the plant because of flying cylinders, searing heat and towering flames."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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