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Two injured in explosion at Putnam County plant

BLACK BETSY, W.Va. -- Two men were injured Monday afternoon in a blast at the Airgas plant in Putnam County.

The men were taken to Cabell Huntington Hospital with first- and second-degree burns, according to officials on the scene. One man received burns to his face, the other to his arms, an official said.

The explosion and fire were first reported at the Airgas Mid America plant on W.Va. 62 in Black Betsy at about 3:30 p.m.

Fifty cylinders of acetylene were believed to be the source of the explosion, emergency officials said. Acetylene is a gas commonly used for welding and torch-cutting metal; its smell lingered in the air outside of the plant.

Witnesses told first responders that they saw flames shooting from the plant.

Officials briefly closed W.Va. 62 in the area of the plant for several hours. Members of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration arrived at the scene.

Doug Barker, chief financial officer of Clark Truck Parts, about half a mile away from the Airgas plant, said employees at the business both heard and felt the effects of the blasts.

"The first one was really big," Barker said. "Then there were a series of smaller [explosions]. Since it was at the Airgas facility, it was probably a bunch of smaller tanks going off."

Barker said he went outside, and first saw a huge cloud of black smoke and flames, then white smoke and steam as firefighters apparently started to get the blaze under control. He said the fire appeared to be under control by about 3:45 p.m.

By 4 p.m., firefighters had the fire "out for the most part," said Chad Jones of the Bancroft Volunteer Fire Department.

Jones said about 100 cylinders are stored in the bunker where the explosion occurred, and about 50 of them exploded.

The plant employs 10 people, one employee said. Five workers were there at the time of the explosion, he said.

The Airgas facility reported having on hand up to 76,000 pounds of propylene and up to 10,000 pounds of propane, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data compiled by the Right-to-Know Network, a public interest group that monitors chemical safety.

The EPA data did not include any information about the stockpile of acetylene reported to be the source of Monday's explosion at the Airgas facility.

But both propane and propylene are considered highly flammable.

Airgas reported that propylene at the Putnam County facility is stored in four small, interconnected bulk tanks. Propylene is stored in a large bulk tank, the company's filing said.

"Propane and propylene are transferred from the bulk tanks into propane and propylene cylinders, respectively," the filing said. "The full propane and propylene cylinders are distributed by [Airgas] to customers. [Airgas] trucks pick up returned (empty) propane and propylene cylinders from customer locations and transport the returned cylinders to the stationary source."

Companies that make and store certain quantities of certain dangerous chemicals are required to file disclosures about those chemicals with EPA and with local emergency responders.

Doug Sherman, vice president of communications for Airgas, said Monday night that the incident was rare for the company.

"I'm in my 12th year and it's very rare -- very, very rare considering the number of locations nationwide," he said, which is 1,100.

The company also released a statement explaining the explosions occurred in a concrete-enclosed cylinder storage area outside of the main plant.

"The main plant was safely shut down and a neighboring business was reported to be evacuated as a precaution," the release states in part. "The fire has been extinguished and was contained to the storage area. An investigation as to the cause is underway."

Rebecca Hawley arrived at the plant not long after she found out about the explosion to make sure her dad, Jim Mitchell, was OK.

"I've been told he was fine, but I want to make sure," she said.

Mitchell, 77, has worked at the plant for 45 years, and lives in a house beside the plant. He wasn't in the plant when the explosion happened, he told his daughter once they found each other.

According to the company's website, Airgas is "the largest U.S. distributor of industrial, medical and specialty gases, and hardgoods, such as welding equipment and supplies. Airgas is also a leading U.S. producer of atmospheric gases, carbon dioxide, dry ice, and nitrous oxide, one of the largest U.S. distributors of safety products, and a leading U.S. distributor of refrigerants, ammonia products, and process chemicals."

Staff writers Rusty Marks and Ken Ward Jr. contributed to this report. Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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