The owner of a former service station received burns to most of his face Monday when the underground gasoline tank he was trying to empty exploded.
Sam Gibson, 60, of Soldotna, was to stay overnight at Central Peninsula General Hospital in Soldotna so that doctors could be sure he did not develop breathing problems after inhaling hot gases from the explosion. Gibson, his face swollen and red, was listed in stable condition.
"It's just one of those freakish things. I was aware that it can happen," he said. "You take all the precautions. I'm sure it was static electricity. I don't know where it came from."
He said he had no insurance to cover medical expenses.
Gary Hale, fire marshal for Central Emergency Services in Soldotna, said there was no apparent damage to the building at Gibson's former SS&T Tesoro station near Mile 91.3 on the Sterling Highway east of Soldotna.
"It was like an earthquake," said Sandy Gries, a cashier at Big John's, across the highway from SS&T. "It shook the whole ground and the building."
The incident occurred about 9 a.m. as Gibson was attempting to pump the remaining two inches of gasoline from an underground 12,000-gallon storage tank to a 55-gallon drum. He closed the gas station about two years ago. He was preparing to flush and decommission several tanks there to comply with Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and fire code requirements, Hale said.
Gibson's electric pump quit moving gasoline after about a minute, Hale said. He shut it off, allowed the gasoline to drain and turned it on again. Nothing happened. He turned it off, moved the pump to the side and peered into the tank. That is when the explosion occurred.
"It was just a big flash. Bam!" Gibson said. "She just rumbled and hissed and blew for a while."
Flames shot 10 or 12 feet above the access hole for a couple of minutes.
"It sounded like a 747 trying to get off the ground," he said.
Gibson received extensive first-degree burns and some second-degree burns to the face. His wife, Susan, drove him to the hospital before Central Emergency Services arrived.
Several 911 callers reported the explosion. Hale said two Enstar Natural Gas Co. workers on Southern Bluff Street behind Big John's reported hearing two explosions followed by a whooshing noise. CES answered with two tankers, an engine, ambulance, three command vehicles and 12 firefighters and medics.
The first firefighters arrived within about three minutes, Hale said. A small flame burned briefly at the end of the vent pipe from the tank, then went out by itself. Firefighters found carbon deposits on the vent pipe, but no apparent damage to the SS&T building. The transfer pump was bent during the explosion and could not be removed from the tank.
Hale said Gibson was wearing coveralls made from 65 percent polyester, 35 percent cotton cloth. Around North Slope oil and gas fields, he said, polyester cloth is known for producing static electricity and sparks.
"We've experienced static arcing from our clothing to equipment," confirmed CES engineer Dick Krapp, who has worked on the slope. "Especially in a gas situation, we hooked wires to ourselves and grounded them before we would go in."
Hale said proper grounding and a thorough knowledge of the equipment being used are essential for safe fuel transfer operations. Gibson said his pump was grounded.
DEC workers visited the site of the blast.
"We saw a singed hat and looked at a singed pump," said DEC environmental specialist Gary Folley. "Around a manhole cover, there was some burnt grass."
He said he believes Gibson gave proper notice that he intends to remove the tanks. Gibson is required to take soil samples when they are removed, Folley said, and that will detect if there is any contamination.
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