Blaze preceded explosion at plant

Fire led to collapse of roof, rupturing gas line, officials say

August 31, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

An explosion that tore through a hazardous materials plant in Southwest Baltimore early Sunday occurred after a fire had started inside the building and might have been the result of a fractured natural gas line, city fire officials said yesterday.

The investigation into the two-alarm fire at Safety-Kleen that reduced a two-story structure to rubble, but caused no injuries, continues. Fire officials said they are awaiting results of lab tests to help determine a cause.

But Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a Fire Department spokesman, said heat from the fire caused joists to expand, leading the roof to collapse. He said falling beams ruptured a gas line, possibly causing the loud explosion heard by residents living in Morrell Park.

Torres said investigators have determined where the blaze began in the building, but he would not elaborate until a definitive cause is found.

Maryland Occupational Safety and Health said it would conduct a preliminary inquiry into the Sunday fire but indicated its role would be small because nobody was injured.

"We're mainly interested in safety of the employees," said Joe Seidel, a MOSH administrator. "The cause is unknown, and no employees were exposed to any chemicals. But we're going to take a look."

The Maryland Department of the Environment said yesterday that three tank trucks containing oil were parked in the collapsed building but that none of the material leaked.

Workers at Safety-Kleen were trying to remove a pile of rubble that buried the trucks and caused an estimated $475,000 in damages to the plant on De Soto Road.

The fire, which broke out shortly after midnight and brought more than 60 firefighters to the scene, was the second in 30 days at area Safety-Kleen plants. The company collects and recycles hazardous waste.

On July 31 in Anne Arundel County, several 55-gallon drums of acids, hydrocarbons and toxins exploded into a towering fireball, forcing the evacuation of 90 homes. No injuries were reported at that incident, which also remains under investigation.

Sunday's fire in Baltimore did not involve any chemicals. No hazardous waste was stored in the main building, and the fire did not spread to three storage silos 30 yards away that hold waste oil, mineral spirits and paint thinner.

Thomas M. Hughes, manager of the De Soto Road facility, said most of the damage was to the collapsed roof. "It looks like everything else is in good shape," he said, calling it "too dangerous" to climb under the debris.

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