Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Blast from the past — Propane explosion rocked early Soldotna
By Clark Fair
The first blast shattered one wall of the propane company’s garage and office building and set the rest ablaze. The adjacent home of company manager, Paul Frickey, also went up in flames.
The second blast destroyed a tanker truck containing a thousand gallons of liquefied petroleum gas, blew Soldotna Fire Chief Harold Jackson off his feet 80 feet away and rocked the entire city of Soldotna with its concussive force.
Caught in a low-lying area between their respective homes nearby, Verona Wilson and Vera Howarth were caught by the ignition of the heavier-than-air gas and were burned on the legs, hands and face.
Students at Soldotna Elementary School, more than half a mile distant, had just been excused for the day by the 3:30 p.m. bell and were spilling out onto the playground when they heard the blast and saw the giant plume of black smoke fill the afternoon sky behind the leafless trees on the horizon.
It was Nov. 25, 1968, and less than a quarter of a mile northeast along the Sterling Highway, Al Hershberger was at his television and electronics shop when everything blew.
“I was standing by the door,” Hershberger said. “My back was turned when it actually blew. And I immediately turned around and saw everything blowing up down there.
“I turned around and I saw the hood of what turned out to be a pickup flying across the road. And I saw big pieces of wood. Those turned out to be the garage door when I went over and looked at it. I saw those flying clear across the road.”
The problem began that afternoon when a local delivery driver for the Petrolane business — located ironically on what is now the grounds of the Central Emergency Services station in Soldotna — pulled in with his small truck and connected his tank to the fuel line of the big tanker. After he had filled his own tank with propane, according to Hershberger, he “forgot to unhook the hose and drove away and tore the valve off the truck.”
“And all that propane leaked out (of the big tank), and it was lying on the ground,” he said.
Hershberger said he believes the driver immediately knew what he had done because he turned around and came back to warn people in the area. Verona Wilson’s husband, Don, and others hurried to shut off pilot lights and anything that might create ignition. Everyone attempted to move away from the greatest concentration of the invisible fuel.
No one is really sure what triggered the initial blast, Hershberger said, but the fire from the first certainly set off the second, and then the sky filled with flames and smoke.
The heat from the conflagration reached such an intensity that it melted power lines and knocked out electricity from Kasilof north to the outskirts of Kenai and east all the way to Sterling.
Windows were blown out of nearby buildings, two 700-gallon tanks of propane were destroyed, and in the aftermath of the main explosions nearly 20 80-gallon tanks occasionally detonated like small bombs.
Volunteer firefighters, first from Soldotna and then Kenai, began rushing to the scene within 10 minutes and were able to save Wilson’s Soldotna Store with jets of water from high-pressure hoses.
Remarkably, no one died in all the fiery chaos that followed, and Wilson and Howarth’s burns were the only injuries. Perhaps even more remarkably, quick and risky work by the emergency response teams prevented the scene from becoming much, much worse.
After volunteer firefighters had sprayed a second large tanker, Kenai Fire Chief Frank Wisecarver crawled beneath it and closed open valves to cut off the flow of fuel. Nearby were five additional 1,000-gallon tanks and an even larger tank containing 8,000 gallons.
It took several hours to quell the flames and begin to assess all the damage. Emergency teams labored well into the early winter evening. In the end, Wilson and Howarth spent time in a hospital, Howarth for the longer period since her burns were more severe.
The Frickey home was obliterated and Marion Frickey visited the scene the next day, searching for any valuables that might have escaped the fire. Hershberger remembered that she “found a bunch of melted coins, a handful of melted coins,” and very little else, he said.
Two days later, on Nov. 27, the local twice-weekly newspaper, The Cheechako News, featured a banner headline in type two inches high that proclaimed, “BLAST RAZES GAS FACILITY.” Photographs in that issue and the one of Nov. 29 showed buildings in flames, the silhouettes of firefighters at work, vehicles on fire, and plenty of smoldering remnants.
Early December issues featured advertisements for benefit dinners and activities to help the homeless Frickeys. Months later, a trial was avoided when Howarth and Wilson settled out of court with the Petrolane Alaska Gas Services Company.
Do you have memories of this event to share? Write the Redoubt Reporter at email@example.com, post them to our blog at redoubtreporter.blogspot.com, or mail them to us at 155 Smith Way, Suite 205C, Soldotna, AK 99669. We’ll print comments in upcoming editions of the paper.