Investigator Provides Details of South St. Louis Gas Plant Fire

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Investigators continue to look into the cause of a blaze at a gas distribution company that launched massive fireballs and hurled metal canisters into the surrounding neighborhood, even as some residents on Monday called for the industrial business to move to a less populated area.

A federal agency is investigating Friday's explosion at a Praxair Inc. facility, a gas distribution business situated next to a national historic district neighborhood known as Lafayette Square.

The manager of the investigation team with the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, Stephen Selk, said on Monday that about 200 cylinders exploded, resulting in dozens of metal projectiles, with the farthest found 900 feet from the fire on a residential lawn.

''They landed on gardens, rooftops and there were at least three building strikes,'' he said. The canisters hit parts of two homes and a church.

''I know of eight damaged vehicles, several of which caught fire,'' he said.

Selk said it could be difficult to determine the fire's cause because hundreds of canisters were in the blaze, and it would be nearly impossible to determine which caught fire first.

At this point, investigators think the fire started in the southeast corner of the property. Selk said he spoke with a Praxair supervisor who was among the first to see the fire, a slender yellow flame with a whitish tinge. ''He had to look up at it, so it was of some height,'' Selk said. He said the supervisor ran to sound an alarm, but it went off before he had a chance.

Others have said an employee operating a forklift spotted the fire and hit an alarm button on the wall to prompt an evacuation. While the plant employs 70 people, there were 22 employees and two customers on the property at the time and all left the property safely, the Danbury, Conn.-based company said in a statement.

The company had sprinkler and deluge systems, a more aggressive form of sprinkler system, inside much of its building and in some other areas where gas is stored, Selk said. But the initial fire spread to more tanks, causing a fire that could be seen for miles, punctuated by loud booming sounds as canisters exploded.

Selk's team arrived Saturday and interviewed witnesses and Praxair management into Monday, then was returning to Washington. Their safety recommendations could take a year to complete.

The St. Louis fire and police departments are also looking into the blaze.

While Lafayette Square residents escaped injury, pieces of the heavy metal canisters damaged homes and cars, and Highway 40 was temporarily closed.

Many of the industrial sites near Lafayette Square began operation before strong efforts began to revitalize the neighborhood, known for its Victorian homes sitting along the edge of a park.

Praxair, for instance, bought the site on Chouteau Avenue in 1998 from Airco, which had conducted similar operations at the facility, Praxair president Wayne Yakich told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In 1999, the company began using the site for gas repackaging operations.

Lafayette Square resident Chris Goodson said he would like Praxair to continue doing business in the city, but it ought to be at a different location.

Praxair officials noted that the site is zoned for the work they do there. The company said the St. Louis plant packages oxygen, nitrogen, propane, specialty gases, and acetylene, which is used for welding.

The business said it expected to meet customers' needs beginning Monday without interruption.