Propane, homes are explosive mix

Recent blast that damaged Hampden rowhouses brings warnings from fire experts

November 11, 2007|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN REPORTER

On Tuesday, a propane tank exploded, severely burning a 48-year-old man and heavily damaging three Hampden rowhouses.

In September, a small propane cylinder exploded, setting a tent ablaze and sending revelers scrambling during festivities for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

On Memorial Day, a propane barbecue grill touched off a blaze that engulfed two White Marsh townhouses.

Marylanders use an estimated 60 million gallons of propane annually to power home appliances, to fuel heating systems and to provide the flames for barbecue grills and stoves. It's a liquid when confined to pressurized containers, but it turns into highly flammable gas when exposed to air. Mishandling propane -- a gas derived from petroleum and natural gas -- is like mishandling a bomb, fire officials say.

"Propane is very volatile," Joseph Zurolo, deputy state fire marshal, explained. "All it needs is a spark from something, and [an explosion] is your end result."

City fire officials said Tuesday's blast was triggered by propane stored in the basement of a house in the 3400 block of Hickory Ave. Michael Welk, 48, a resident of the house, suffered second-degree burns and is in critical condition at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. Four children were treated for minor injuries.

Welk's condition has prevented investigators from questioning him to find out what ignited the blast, said Fire Department spokesman Kevin Cartwright.

The blast and fire heavily damaged two adjacent houses, but Cartwright said investigators have yet to come up with a dollar figure for the damage. All three houses were condemned.

Elva Bledsoe, a neighborhood resident, said she was visiting one of the houses adjoining Welk's when she heard "a big bang." The wall separating the houses disintegrated and she saw Welk in the wreckage next door before she passed out.

"I see dust, and the wall is just gone. I could see the guy just standing there. Then I went into shock," she recalled.

Zurolo compared the propane stored in the house to a "bomb waiting to go off." Cartwright said storing a propane tank inside a house does not violate city law, but it's not a wise thing to do.

"I'm not aware of any specific policy the city has regulating propane tanks," Cartwright said. "They have specific usages. And when people use them outside of the realm for [which they are intended], it increases the likelihood of an explosion."

Cartwright said he did not know of the explosion that marred the Sept. 15 black-tie gala marking the BSO's 25th season at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Witnesses said there was a loud blast that touched off a blaze in a tent outside the concert hall. No one was injured, and firefighters quickly extinguished the blaze, which was blamed on a propane canister used to heat food.

On Memorial Day, two Baltimore County firefighters suffered minor injuries fighting a two-alarm blaze in the 5000 block of Kemsley Court in White Marsh. A propane grill on a deck caught fire and spread to an adjacent townhouse. None of the occupants was injured.

The U.S. Fire Administration estimates that propane grills cause about 2,700 fires annually and about $11 million in damage -- mostly caused by gas leaks, blocked tubes and overfilled tanks.

Nationwide, nearly 19 billion gallons of propane were used for home, agricultural, industrial and commercial uses in 2005, the latest year for which figures are available, according to the National Propane Gas Association.

Thomas Osina, the head of the Mid-Atlantic Propane Gas Association, said the heavy volume of propane use and the relatively few accidents attributed to it show that it can be safely used.

Osina said Marylanders annually use an estimated 60 million gallons of odorized propane, which is treated to give off a distinctive smell when it is released into the air. When users detect the smell, they should evacuate the area immediately and call the fire department, he said.

Osina blamed propane accidents on careless handling of the potentially dangerous substance.

Propane is widely used in Florida, where 300 million to 400 million gallons are consumed annually, much of it to power appliances such as stoves, clothes dryers and water heaters, according to a news account in the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale.

Propane is responsible for dozens of accidents annually in Florida. Forty-two were reported from June 2006 to June 2007, resulting in 35 injuries and four deaths, the Sun-Sentinel reported.

brent.jones@baltsun.com

SAFETY TIPS

NEVER store or place a propane cylinder indoors or in an enclosed area such as a basement, garage, shed, or tent.

NEVER store or place a propane cylinder in an area of excessive heat (120 degrees or higher) or near a stove, fireplace, or other heat source. The heat builds up pressure inside the cylinder, which may cause the pressure relief valve to release propane. Flash fires or explosions can result from exposing cylinders to heat.

NEVER store or place a spare cylinder under or near a barbecue grill.

DO NOT smoke or have any ignition sources such as flames or spark-producing electrical tools in the area while handling or transporting cylinders.

ALWAYS transport and store a cylinder in a secure and upright position so it will not fall, shift, or roll.

NEVER keep a filled cylinder inside a hot vehicle or transport it inside a closed trunk.

[Source: Propane Education & Research Council]

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