TAVARES, Fla. – A plant that refills propane tanks like the kind used in backyard barbecue grills exploded around 11 p.m. Monday night, injuring eight plant workers and leading to the evacuation of about 50 homes.
Authorities are still investigating the cause of the explosion at the Blue Rhino plant in Tavares, a small community about 30 miles northwest of Orlando, but Tavares fire chief Richard Keith said the likely cause was a combination of equipment failure and human error.
Twenty-four people were working at the plant when the blast occurred. Fifteen people were initially reported missing, but they were later accounted for by company officials, who reported that some of them fled the scene or drove themselves to hospitals for treatment.
According to CNN, five of the injured workers are in critical condition, but the nature of the injuries remains unclear.
The explosions prompted the evacuation of about 50 homes within a mile of the plant, as firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze. Displaced residents were allowed to return early Tuesday morning once firefighters put the flames out about 2 a.m.
A spokesman for Ferrellgas, the parent company of Blue Rhino, said that the company is cooperating with authorities investigating the blast. The plant fills about 2.3 million propane tanks every year for distribution throughout Florida, southern Alabama and southern Georgia. There were about 53,000 20-pound tanks at the facility when it exploded, according to the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has started its own investigation of the explosion. The agency cited Blue Rhino with a “serious” safety violation involving unsafe equipment in 2011, but it is not clear whether that violation could have contributed to the blast.