As flames raged, Scoutmaster’s training helped rescue co-worker at Florida propane plant

PHOTOBLOG: Firefighters walked Tuesday among thousands of exploded propane cylinders that littered the storage yard of a propane plant in Tavares, Fla. Click the image for more photos. David Manning / Reuters

A maintenance worker said he put his Scoutmaster training to work to save a severely burned colleague as a series of massive explosions rocked a propane tank plant in Florida on Monday night.

Eight workers were injured when a fire set off a 2½-hour chain of explosions as tank after tank of propane gas ignited at the Blue Rhino facility in Tavares, near Leesburg, north of Orlando. Five of them remained in critical condition Wednesday, four with severe burns and the fifth with injuries he suffered when he was run over by a passing SUV as he tried to flee the scene.

Gene Williams, a maintenance worker on the 10 p.m.-6 a.m. shift at the plant, told the Daily Commercial newspaper of Leesburg in a story published Wednesday that he coaxed a badly burned co-worker out of the burning building Monday night and drove him to the hospital because "I figured that was better than waiting 10 minutes for an ambulance to get here."

Williams is a Boy Scout leader in Lake County, and when he heard the first explosion, his Scoutmaster instincts kicked in, he said. He triggered a switch to open the gates for fire crews and then spotted a forklift operator who had been engulfed in flames.

"He had flesh hanging off his hands from third-degree burns. His legs were burnt bad, and his face was burned, and I told him, 'Come on ... I'm going to get you out of here,'" Williams told the newspaper.

After delivering the man to the hospital, Williams returned to the plant to offer more assistance, he said, because fire crews needed someone who knew the plant's layout.

Authorities said they were still in the initial stages of their investigation, but they repeated Wednesday that they don't believe sabotage was to blame.

Jeff Brown, an investigator for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives, said at a briefing Wednesday that "what happened here so far does not look like a criminal act."

Authorities said Tuesday that a combination of human error and equipment failure might have caused the explosions. But Brown said Wednesday that investigators "don't have all the information."

"We will make the determination when we're finished with the investigation," he said.

Safety records show that the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services inspected the plant 12 days ago and found no violations. Federal records show only one federal enforcement action, a fine from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2011 for using too much water pressure in cleanup operations.

"They actually run a very safe operation," Tavares Fire Chief Richard Keith told NBC station WESH of Orlando. "We've trained with them. Our fire department works with them."

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