Gurnee fire leader: Massive propane plant fire explosion averted
Crews from more than 30 suburban fire departments prevented a seven-alarm blaze at a Gurnee propane gas business Thursday afternoon from igniting several large stores of propane at the facility, avoiding a massive explosion, fire officials said.
"I would say -- without question -- the greatest amount of danger that could have occurred in that situation was averted," Gurnee Fire Lt. Joe Arnold said.
Witnesses said they heard explosions and saw tanks flying through the air "like popcorn" when what started just before noon as a small fire at the Pinnacle Propane Express plant, 3895 Clearview Court, escalated and forced fire and police officials to evacuate an area ranging from a half mile to 1.5 miles around the building.
No one was hurt, authorities said, and the cause of the fire remains under investigation.
The bulk of the damage occurred in a large stack of mostly empty 20-gallon propane tanks that were being stored outside the facility waiting to be cleaned, inspected and refilled, Arnold said.
"They have residual amounts of propane, so you're still fighting a propane fire, which quickly outpaced the amount of water that we could get on this fire," he said.
Firefighters used more than 600,000 gallons of water as well as foam to control the blaze and prevent it from spreading to full tanks nearby.
"The biggest concern was the amount of cylinders that were on fire and that (the fire) was impinging on one of two 30,000-gallon propane storage tanks that were about 70 percent full," Arnold said.
Additionally, two semitrailer trucks nearby were loaded with full cylinders. Beyond the fire, firefighters had to be wary of exploding propane tanks.
"They would just blow up into the air and blow some 300 feet away," Arnold said. "The issue is whether or not they're going to blow straight up 300 feet, or out. That's where the hazard becomes significant, not knowing what the trajectory is and which way they're going to go."
The initial 911 calls came shortly before noon from people who thought they heard gunshots, Gurnee Deputy Police Chief Willie Meyer said. By 2:30 p.m., the fire call was upgraded to a seventh alarm that brought more firefighters to the scene. Firefighters from Grayslake, Libertyville, Round Lake, Waukegan and as far away as Spring Grove were among those who responded.
Gurnee Fire Chief Fred Friedl said crews responded to a report of a small fire that "took off on us," and officials became concerned about large cylinder tanks at the rear of the building and worked with police to evacuate the building and general area.
The village used its emergency phone system to order area residents and workers to evacuate. Gurnee police assisted in the evacuations, and people were loaded onto Gurnee Elementary District 56 buses and taken out of the area.
Angel Schultz, director of operations at a nearby business, said the fire started slowly in the rear of the building where the propane tanks are filled.
"And then within, what, 30 minutes, you could hear the explosions and you could see the propane tanks actually flying through there like popcorn," Schultz said.
Once the explosions started, people got scared and started running, she said.
"You could feel it. You could feel the ground shake," Schultz said. "You could see propane tanks flying through the air, so a lot of people were nervous, especially people who work there -- they're more familiar with how dangerous this stuff is."
Police closed several area roads including Delany and Sunset roads where they meet Route 41, and Northwestern Avenue, Meyer said.
The nearby Union Pacific railroad was also shut down until firefighters cleared the scene just after 5 p.m., Arnold said. No damage estimates were available, but Arnold said the majority of the damage occurred outside the facility with some building repairs that will be necessary.
A nearby business, Lambent Technologies, was also damaged by debris. It's located across the railroad tracks about 300 feet away from Pinnacle Propane Express.
Pinnacle Propane officials thanked first responders for their role in keeping people safe.
"We are cooperating with emergency personnel and regulatory agencies to ensure the safety and security off the Gurnee community," a Pinnacle Propane spokesman said. "We are also conducting a thorough investigation to determine the cause of the incident, and to mitigate the risk of any future incidents."
• Daily Herald staff photographer Gilbert Boucher contributed to this report.