New Martinsville, WV Liquid Oxygen Explosion, Feb 1978


New Martinsville (AP) -- Three persons were killed and two others critically burned Tuesday when liquid oxygen escaping from a pipe at a chemical plant set off a "terrific explosion" and fire, authorities said.
All land, air and river traffic was halted for about seven hours while officials waited for the 900-ton liquid oxygen tank to exhaust its supply.
The dead were identified as: MICHAEL WEBER, 31, of Euclid, Ohio; JAMES LUSTER, 56, of Howard, Ohio; and BENJAMIN RODRIGUEZ, 23, of Moundsville, W.Va. LUSTER and WEBER were employees of Dravo Construction Co. of Pittsburgh which was working at Mobay Chemical Corp., where the explosion occurred. RODRIGUEZ was employed by Mobay.
All three were burned to death, authorities said.
The injured were in critical condition at West Penn Burn Center in Pittsburgh.
The clear liquid oxygen "flowed like water" some 25 yards from a ruptured pipe at the Air Products and Chemicals Inc. plant to the neighboring Mobay Chemical Corp. facility, where its vapors apparently ignited, a Mobay spokesman said.
Bill Barker a Wheeling construction worker, witnessed the explosion from the gate about 200 yards away.
"You couldn't see 10 feet in front of you," he said. He said vapors covered the area like a dense fog.
"I was just getting ready to sign my vehicle in when I heard this terrific explosion," he said. "As long as I was there, there was nothing but a mass of confusion."
Barker said he saw the figure of a running man engulfed in flames about 100 yards away.
It was not immediately known whether the dead were employees of Mobay or a construction firm operating there. The bodies were taken to the Marshall County medical examiner's office for identification.
One of the critically burned, JOSEPH HENRY, 42, of Moundsville, was a production worker at Mobay.
HENRY, whose legs were blown off, was listed in "very very critical" condition in Pittsburgh, a spokesman there said.
The other critically injured victim was ROBERT BARROWS, 25, of New Martinsville.
Because of the escaping oxygen, it was several hours before company officials were able to enter the area where the explosion occurred and recover the bodies.
Traffic on W.Va. 2, a main artery running north and south along the Ohio River, was diverted to Ohio 7.
River and rail traffic was discontinued and authorities refused to allow aircraft to the area.
A spokesman for Air Products, Stewart Stabley, said the pipe was ruptured at an air separation facility when a liquid nitrogen vessel broke and a portion fell on the pipe.
The colorless liquid oxygen was stored at minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Officials said that it would support combustion at that temperature. As it reached atmospheric temperature, the liquid evaporated.
Allan Brown, personnel manager for Mobay, said the three victims were found "in a relatively small area" of the construction site.

Charleston Gazette West Virginia 1978-02-01