Explosion At Kansas Solvents Plant Starts Fire, Forces Evacuations

Tuesday, July 17th 2007, 5:52 pm
By: News On 6

VALLEY CENTER, Kan. (AP) _ Hundreds of people evacuated after an explosion Tuesday morning started a fire at a Wichita-area solvents plant, authorities said. No one was seriously injured.

The first blast occurred about 9:15 a.m. at Barton Solvents in downtown Valley Center, a town of about 5,000. Black smoke billowed from storage tanks, flames shot as high as 200 feet into the air, and 15 or more secondary explosions could be heard.

Firefighters concentrated on defending nearby buildings, and people in a two-mile radius were ordered evacuated. About 660,000 pounds of chemicals were burning, authorities said.

Eleven people went to a Wichita hospital as a precaution, said Helen Thomas, a spokeswoman for Wesley Medical Center. Ten were treated and released, and the other was to be released soon, she said.

About 200 evacuees were taken to the Kansas Coliseum, about 10 miles to the south in Wichita, said Andrea Anglin, a spokeswoman for the Wichita chapter of the Red Cross. The mandatory evacuation order was lifted by about 10:50 a.m., though people who left their homes were not immediately allowed to return, she said.

Ed Bricknell, fire marshal for the Wichita Fire Department, said residents up to a half-mile upwind and one mile downwind of the plant were still being urged to stay away, though he added, ``At this point, the plume looks like it's going up into the air and dissipating.''

The burning storage tanks contained industrial chemicals, including hydrocarbons, alcohol and ketones, used in the paint and coatings industry.

Air tests were being conducted. ``So far the reports we are getting back is it's OK,'' said Amanda Matthews, a spokeswoman for Sedgwick County.

Efforts were under way to extinguish the flames with fire-retardant foam. If those failed _ and firefighters were forced to just let the blaze burn itself out _ evacuations could again be ordered, Matthews warned.

David Casten, president of Des Moines, Iowa-based Barton Solvents, said that the plant employs about two dozen people and that about 12 were working Tuesday morning. All employees are safe, he said. The cause of the explosion wasn't known, Casten said.

Joe Blubaugh, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the agency was monitoring the fire.

Ronny Ketron, 51, who lives about a block northeast of the plant, was among the evacuees. He was sitting on his front porch with his toddler grandson when the explosion occurred.

``It shook us like a big guy just got ahold of me on my arm,'' he said.