MANCHESTER — A propane leak near a major road last week was caused when an employee inadvertently left a valve to a storage tank open after filling up a truck for a delivery, according to authorities.
Manchester Fire Chief Philip "Grub" Bourne said it was a truck driver's quick thinking and that morning's high humidity that prevented a catastrophic explosion at the depot on Taconic Business Park Road.
"He put his life in harm's way and shut off the valve, knowing this was a serious problem," Bourne said Sunday. "I'd say that he's a hero and saved the day."
Bourne said the truck driver was an employee of Suburban Propane who arrived at the depot just after 8 a.m. on Thursday to find a thick propane plume surrounding the area. He was badly burned after he blindly felt his way to turn off a valve that had been left open, according to Bourne. There were no other injuries.
The plume, which resembled a low-lying fog, came from a 10,000 gallon propane tank in the depot. Another employee had recently filled up his truck with propane and accidently left a four-inch bleeder valve open, Bourne said. It's unclear exactly how long the valve was open. Bourne said 2 percent of the tank's contents leaked out.
The valve had been turned off for just a few minutes before first responders arrived to the scene, Bourne said, and the plume had largely dissipated before authorities arrived.
The propane depot is just west of the Route 7 interchange, off of Depot Street (Route 30) and adjacent to Aubauchon Hardware and the outdoor power equipment store Manchester Powerhouse.
The injured driver initially didn't think the burns were serious and declined treatment from Manchester Rescue Squad, Bourne said. But the burns quickly worsened and were blistering by the time EMS arrived.
The driver was treated for burns on his face and a shoulder, an arm and a leg, Bourne said. He was taken to Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington and then taken to another hospital's burn unit.
Bourne, a 35-year veteran of the department, said it was a miracle the plume didn't cause an explosion. He pointed to the 1985 fire at the Equinox House, caused by a damaged propane tank. The resulting blaze destroyed the historic structure's south wing and drew over 200 firefighters and volunteers from 32 miles away, according to news archives.
"A frayed spark plug wire, a cigarette, a static shock could have caused [the propane] to ignite," Bourne said.
Bourne said he thinks the relative humidity and moister in the air prevented the plume from igniting. Things may have been different if temperatures were warmer, he said.
The scene was blocked off for about an hour. Bourne said multiple vehicles attempted to bypass the roadblock because they didn't know how serious the incident was.
"The Manchester Fire Department strongly reminds you that ignoring fire personnel orders, or road closures can be extremely dangerous to yourself, emergency workers, and the public," the department warned on its official Facebook page. "While inconvenient, closures such as this are for everyone's safety."
The Manchester Fire Department had two trucks at the scene. The Manchester Police Department also responded.