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Valve to propane tank closed, fire goes out

July 20, 1997

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

HANCOCK - A Shawley Superior LP Gas representative made a daring foray into a fire early Sunday morning to shut off valves to a propane tank that was threatening to explode, fire officials said.

With hoses trained on him, Harry E. Duttinger inched toward the 36,000-gallon tank outside the Rayloc automotive plant at about 1 a.m., Hancock Volunteer Fire Co. Chief Ernest Truax said.

"He was walking within inches of the fire burning. We had hoses on him," Truax said. "It was pretty hairy at that time."

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Duttinger said he was wearing a fire suit and is highly trained for such situations. He said officials reviewed the options and decided to shut off the gas. If he had determined there was a danger, he said he would not have attempted the shutoff.

"We had plenty of protection. Safety was utmost on everybody's minds," he said. "There's no point to take chances."

Once Duttinger reached the valves, the fire disappeared as quickly as it came nearly five hours earlier. Nearby residents described a loud boom powerful enough to shake their homes up to a half-mile away.

Truax said at least 200 people were hastily evacuated from the Vista Village mobile home park and nearby houses. The blaze ignited when a line carrying fuel from the tank to a forklift ruptured, he said.

The blaze burned brilliantly, but nothing solid caught on fire, Truax said. The escaping vapors burned underneath the tank, he said.

The situation put firefighters from more than a half-dozen companies in an odd situation: Although trained to put out fires, Truax said in this case they had to specifically make sure the fire did not go out. If it did go out, he said, the flammable vapors could have escaped and ignited somewhere else - perhaps a mile away.

Truax said firefighters trained stationary hoses on the tank to keep it from overheating and then retreated to the Kirk Ford dealership about a half-mile away. While the hoses kept the tank cool, though, Truax said officials faced a potentially more dangerous problem.

Truax said the chances of an explosion grew larger as the propane fumes burned up. He compared it to a pot of boiling water. When the water evaporates, the pot melts and ignites a fire, he said.

In this case, Truax said the tank could have exploded as it heated. An explosion could have had devastating consequences on a wide area, he said. Not only would the plant likely have sustained severe damage, nearby homes also could have been damaged, he said.

And, hazardous materials from the Fleming Oil Co., across the street from the Rayloc plant, might have ignited as well, Truax said.

"It would have been that violent an explosion," he said. "We might have found pieces up to a mile away."

As a result, Truax said residents from roughly a two-mile radius were told to leave. Interstate 70, which overlooks the area, also was closed to traffic for several hours.

Truax said the town hall building was opened up to residents who did not have anywhere else to go.

George Lockwood said he had been watching the fire burn for some time from the edge of his property on Tollgate Ridge when police officers told everyone they had to leave the area. Lockwood said urgency was so pronounced that he barely had time to scoop up his dog and jump in the car with his girlfriend.

"I didn't even get a chance to get a shirt. I did get the dog, though," he said. "I just rode around on the back roads. The hotels were all full."

Lockwood said he was concerned there would be nothing left to come home to.

"It was kind of freaky - plus not knowing what was going to happen. Not knowing whether we would come back to nothing," he said.

Donald J. Harper said he heard a loud boom and felt the house shake. Later, he said he could smell the fumes coming from the plant.

"When we first came out there, we could smell it. It gave me a bad headache," he said.

Next-door neighbor Robert Orndoff said he had just returned from swimming when police officers ordered his family to evacuate. There was no time to grab dry clothes, he said.

"We jumped in our car with what he had on," he said.

On the other side of the fire, Danny Shoemaker said he and several neighbors at the mobile home park watched the fire burn from above.

When the order to evacuate came, he said he grabbed his animals, safe and pictures and headed to his mother's house in Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

"I took the most important things," he said. "The rest can stay."

No one was injured in connection with the incident that brought fire companies from neighboring counties and towns in the Tri-State area.

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