BLACK BETSY, W.Va. -- Two men were burned when about 50 canisters of acetylene exploded at an Airgas facility in Putnam County.
The first explosions sounded about 3:25 p.m. Monday and were immediately followed by several more.
Hannah Walker, 22, was talking with her niece, who had just arrived from school, inside her mobile home Monday afternoon when the first explosions sounded. Her house is next to the Airgas plant just off W.Va. 62 in Black Betsy, which is just north of Poca.
"It felt like a bomb went off," said Walker, a clerk at One Stop in Poca. "It was just really strong and really loud. It shook the whole trailer."
She said she looked out her back door and saw the flames and black smoke rising up into the sky. Walker told the girl to stay inside and went out onto her back porch to see what was going on. She said several neighbors at Edgewater Estates mobile home park were outside as well, trying to see what was happening.
"It would stop and then there would be another big boom," she said. "There were multiple explosions."
She said her assistant manager drove to her home shortly after with one of her co-workers, a volunteer firefighter. She covered his shift while he worked at the scene.
Chad Jones, a firefighter with the Bancroft Volunteer Fire Department, was among the first at the scene.
When he arrived there was a small fire at the back of the Airgas plant. He said cylinders were exploding as firefighters from Bancroft and Poca approached.
"It was a chain reaction," Jones said. "Once the first one went it all went from there."
Workers at Modular Building Consultants, which is next to Airgas, evacuated. So did three workers who were inside the Airgas facility at the time of the explosions.
Two workers, whose names have not yet been released, were outside when the explosions occurred and were injured. The men walked out to the first responders, Jones said.
The men suffered second and third degree burns. One had severe burns to his face, said Todd Southall, a critical care nurse with Kanawha County Ambulance Authority.
The specialized ambulance responded to the scene because first responders feared one of the men needed to have a breathing tube inserted, but that was not the case, Southall said.
Both men were taken by Putnam County ambulance to Cabell Huntington Hospital.
The explosions occurred in the concrete enclosed storage bay behind the facility, Doug Sherman, Airgas vice president of communications, said in a phone interview. He said the cause of the explosions remained unknown Monday evening but that the explosions resulted in a fire.
Sherman said acetylene is a flammable gas commonly used in welding applications.
Acetylene is a colorless, highly reactive and extraordinarily flammable gas, according the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. The gas has a garlic-like odor.
"The main plant was safely shut down and a neighboring business was reported to be evacuated as a precaution," Sherman said in a statement. "The immediate concern was to secure the area and ensure the safety of our associates at the facility, as well as the safety of the surrounding community."
Airgas is the largest U.S. distributor of industrial, medical, and specialty gases and other items like welding equipment. The company was founded in 1982 and has more than 15,000 employees at 1,100 locations across the country.
There were more than 100 barrels of acetylene in that storage bay, Jones said. The containers weren't full, he said. He estimated that 50 or more exploded in the fire.
"It looked like a 150-foot fireball," Jones said. "You could see it over the trees."
He said the fire was mostly out, but that firefighters were hosing down four containers to keep them cool and prevent another explosion.
Firefighters were working with investigators from the State Fire Marshal's office to determine what caused the explosions. An investigator from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was also at the scene. Jones said the OSHA investigator had been interviewing employees.
"I've been here 20 years and I've never seen anything of this magnitude," Jones said.
Airgas' Hazardous Materials team was en route from Bowling Green, Ky., he said.
Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at ashley.cr...@dailymail.com or 304-348-4850.
Other Top HeadlinesEdgewood Elementary will be a clean slate for West Side schools