West St. Paul, MN Propane Tank Explosion, Jan 1974


West St. Paul, Minn. (AP) -- A propane storage tank exploded in the middle of a large apartment complex early Friday, heavily damaging two apartment buildings. Authorities said at least four persons were killed and nine injured.
Officials said the explosion occurred as firemen arrived on the scene to fight a fire which had broken out on a tanker truck loading the storage tank.
Most apartment residents had been evacuated before the explosion but authorities expressed concern that some may have been trapped in the building by the explosion.
"We've asked everyone to check in with us because we're very concerned we'll be finding some bodies inside," said Russell Scheibel, director of public safety.
The known dead included three firemen and a woman resident of one of the buildings.
Of the injured, four were admitted to hospital's where their conditions ranged from satisfactory to good by midmorning. Five others were treated and released.
Scheibel said firemen had just arrived "and were hooking up the hoses when it just blew up."
The explosion, which occurred about 12:30 a.m., sent a huge fireball into the air that could be seen in downtown St. Paul, some four miles away.
Scheibel said the storage tank held 10,000 gallons and the tanker truck had a capacity of 16,000 gallons.
With temperatures at 6 degrees below zero, flames swept the 66-unit Bellows Court apartment building and spread to the 33-unit Charlton Arms building, both three-story structures. Only a shell of the Bellows Court building was left intact, witnesses said.
An estimated 750 families were evacuated from 15 apartment buildings in a four-block area as a precautionary measure.
Fire Chief Don Hove reported about 6 a.m. that the fire had been brought under control and the danger of another explosion had apparently passed.

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West St. Paul disaster

The stationary tank was part of an interuptable gas system where the local gas utility requires large gas consumers to switch to their own gas supply when temperatures were extremely cold. The temperature that night was minus sixteen. The propane tank was near empty (less than 15%), so it was imperative that it be refilled or the consumer would pay a healthy fine. During the load transfer from the tanker truck (capacity 8,000 gallons) a leak in the supply hose occurred. The leaking propane was likely ignited by the vaporizor next to the tank (it had an open flame). The supply hose burned away and a large burning liquid propane flame impinged on the tank. Being near empty, there was no liquid in the tank to absorb the heat. The firefighters responded as quickly as they could and attempted to close the supply valve on the tanker truck (the excess flow valve had apparently frozen open). As the first-in firefighters approached the truck, the fire flashed over to the meter box. The firefighters retreated and set up for an attempt to cool the tank before it became overstressed by heat. Water was just beginning to flow from the snorkel and the primary pumper. The explosion occurred at that point. The flash was seen in Hinckley, MN (approx 100 miles north). The sound of the explosion was heard in Afton, MN (approx 15 miles east). Two firefighters were killed instanlty - the third firefighter was mortally wounded and died in surgery a short while later. Two civilians were killed - they were told to leave the area prior to the explosion. The primary pumper was badly damaged and could no longer pump. The snorkel truck was damaged, but continued to function throughout the remainder of the incident. Ultimately its boom was x-rayed. No damage of the boom was detected. That apartment complex now uses fuel oil as its auxiliary fuel supply. Brian Grittner, WSP FD reserve, retired