Exploding gas starts fire, destroys businesses

by Ann E. Wibbenmeyer

Herald Staff Writer

January 28, 2010

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Several businesses were destroyed on Friday after a damaged fuel tank exploded in the Aspen Gold business park at 501 U.S. 24 south of Leadville.

The exploded gas tank, which immediately caught fire at 3:04 p.m., was in the Gas Consultants business space, according to public information officer Betty Benson.

One employee from this business was taken to Denver in a Summit County ambulance to be treated for burns.

Jake Franklin was working near the engine of a car at Ryan’s Performance Motors when he heard the explosion.

He first thought that a car fell off a lift. Then the wall to his right buckled out towards him, and he ran from the building.

His coworker, Matt O’Brien, was in the main shop working under a car on a lift when the explosion occurred. The back door in this bay blew out and created a wind tunnel, he said. Wooden shelves were knocked off the wall in the explosion.

He ran to the office to call 911. Then he saw flames, dropped the phone mid-call and ran outside.

As both men watched the flames work their way down the building, they noticed a man run back inside the back of the building. They headed that way and heard yelling from the back of the building.

O’Brien said he noticed a hand sticking out under a garage door that had been knocked off track in the explosion.

He and Franklin were able to peel the door out of its hole to get the two men out.

These men were among the three treated at St. Vincent Hospital for smoke inhalation.

The fire was reported by Deputy Jason Melroy, who heard the explosion as he was driving by.

Battalion Captain Dan Dailey and Firefighter Bill Burns made entry into the building as soon as they arrived on scene to rescue people reportedly still inside. Engineer Zach Pigati set up the hose line to cover the two inside, according to Fire Chief Bob Harvey.

Captain Jose Velasquez and Firefighter Adam Olson responded on Engine Two, the white truck, and provided a water current to block the flames from extending into the south end of the building.

The ladder truck did not respond, said Harvey, because it could not be staffed.

“It would’ve just been another truck on the scene, in the way,” he said.

He was in Pueblo at a meeting with Salida Fire Chief Don Taylor, who offered to send a fully staffed ladder-truck. Harvey took him up on the offer.

There were several more explosions as the fire raged. Many of them were due to the gas, oil, paint and lacquer stored in the various businesses.

One large explosion was from the oxygen tank in an ambulance that had been parked at Ryan’s Performance Motors for maintenance. Debris from this explosion was found scattered several blocks away, according to Benson.

This ambulance was insured, according to Dave Zaitz, St. Vincent Hospital CEO, and the state has indicated it will assist in replacing it. Summit County also offered the use of a spare ambulance in the meantime.

The fire was difficult to fight, according to Harvey, because of the compartmentalized nature of the building. Multiple renovations to the building created false roofs where the fire could hide.

The battle went on with the flames until 9:50 p.m., when it was declared contained. This is when Salida, Eagle River and Copper Mountain fire departments were released.

Harvey declared the fire under control at 11:15 p.m. Chaffee County fire department left at this time.

As mutual aid responders were leaving, St. Vincent Hospital checked them for any medical needs. One had a minor cardiac event and was taken to the hospital for the night.

The Leadville/Lake County Fire-Rescue on-duty crew stayed on scene until 3 a.m. Two others stayed until 8 a.m. Hot spots from the fire were fought throughout Saturday.

Benson reported that other resources were provided by Red Cross, the Leadville Street Department, Lake County Road and Bridge, Kyle Welch from KW Woodworks, Tom Martin with the Colorado Division of Wildlife and others.

Zaitz said that he saw Commissioner Carl Schaefer directing traffic away from water hoses on the corner of West 2nd and James streets.

Jerry Means, arson investigator for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, and arson dog Sadie were out investigating the fire Saturday morning.

He was impressed by the fact that Leadville/Lake County Fire Rescue managed to keep the building from being a total loss.

“It was fully involved when the fire department arrived,” Means said, pointing out that it was an older structure that had been pieced together. Even if the fire department had been right across the street, they couldn’t have done more, he said, commenting on how aggressively the fire was fought.

He also was impressed with the Leadville Police Department.

“They’ve worked tirelessly since it started,” he said.

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