Fort Myers gas explosion: Thousands still without gas

9:57 AM, Nov 12, 2010   |    comments
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Fort Myers, Florida -- The U.S. Department of Labor will decide who is responsible for a Fort Myers gas line explosion Thursday that severely burned a construction worker and has left 8,000 Lee and Collier County customers without natural gas, possibly for days.

The worker, 30-year-old Mario Santos of Bonita Springs, was in critical condition Friday morning at Tampa General Hospital. Burns cover 50 percent of his body, according to emergency workers.

Photo Gallery: Pictures of the gas line on fire

"It was like a Humvee blew up," said Chance Hood, who felt the boom from about 250 yards away in the Crossroads Plaza at S.R. 82 and Lee/Colonial Boulevard in east Fort Myers.

Fire charred a portion of Colonial between Treeline Avenue and State Road 82, closing westbound traffic Thursday afternoon.  Colonial Blvd. reopened earlier Friday morning.

Lee County hired Posen Construction in March 2009 on a $16.7 million contract to widen Colonial between Interstate 75 and S.R. 82.

Posen is required to contact Occupational Safety & Health Administration to investigate the incident. Company officials did not return calls Thursday.

OSHA couldn't be reached Thursday because federal offices were closed for Veterans Day.

Meanwhile, TECO Peoples Gas' customers in Lee and Collier - including hospitals, schools, restaurants and hotels - lost natural gas service. The company said restoring gas will be a lengthy process.

Some restaurants worried that they already had lost thousands of dollars in business late Thursday.

"We have an entire empty restaurant and had to turn away hundreds of people," said Barry Strand, a manager at Stir Crazy in Coconut Point mall in Estero. He estimated he'd lost $10,000.

"We are crippled," he said.

Plaza shook

Around 1:45 p.m. Thursday, Santos, who was working on the Posen project, drove a piece of construction equipment over an 8-inch natural gas line, said TECO spokesman Rick Morera.

Santos had been mixing stone and dirt, a key step in stabilizing the soil below the roadbed, said Lee County transportation director Paul Wingard.

The explosion -- which witnesses said sounded like a sonic boom -- ripped through the air. Instantly, bright orange plumes engulfed the equipment and reached at least 50 feet into the air.

The explosion shook the Crossroads Plaza, causing a box of cups to fall from a shelf at Publix's deli section.

"I didn't know what it was," said employee Nichole Shepherd, 19, of Lehigh Acres.

The blaze roared when Fort Myers firefighter Steve Byrne arrived. "It sounded like a jet engine," he said.

Santos managed to jump from the equipment. An ambulance whisked him to Lee Memorial Hospital, where a helicopter flew him to Tampa.

Another worker, whom police had not identified late Thursday, also was injured. Police said he was treated at the scene and released.

Heat radiated from the blaze as firefighters pumped water from a hydrant at the CVS pharmacy down the street.

Extinguishing blaze

Crews worked more than an hour to extinguish the blaze because it took time for fumes to burn off.

That's the best way to handle a gas fire, said Ken Bennett, Lehigh Acres Fire District fire marshal.

"Unless there's a hazard nearby that forces you to put it out right away, that's the safest thing to do," Bennett said. "It eventually dies down, once there's no gas, but in the meantime it's under a lot of pressure."

Bennett said it usually takes the flames at least an hour to die down and burn up the fuel.

TECO closed two valves - one at Colonial and Ortiz Avenue, the other at Gunnery and Buckingham roads - to contain the rupture.

Thick, black smoke blanketed the air as firefighters sprayed water on the construction equipment to ensure the fire was extinguished. Crowds who had gathered to watch the flames began to disperse as crews assessed the damage, the extent of which in terms of lost equipment wasn't clear late Thursday.

Lehigh Acres resident Kenny Winstead watched the final flames lick the burned equipment as he drove by.

"God help who was on it," he said.

Businesses affected

About 50 guests are checking out of the Hampton Inn and Suites on Colonial Boulevard in Fort Myers because the natural gas leak has left the hotel without hot water.

Customers are upset, said front desk agent Lorena Salazar. "They think it's our problem and we're trying to explain to them it's not in our hands to fix it."

The hotel is also refunding 20 percent of guests' bills, Salazar said. She thinks the hotel lost about $5,000 in sales since last night.

Restaurants, hotels and almost every business that relies on natural gas - from south Lee County to south Naples - have ground to a near standstill following Thursday's natural gas explosion on Colonial Boulevard in Fort Myers.

At the Bellaserra Hotel, just north of Naples' ritzy 5th Avenue South, guest services supervisor Terry Langendorfer said the hotel's restaurant, Zizi, closed following the explosion.

"We're open now, but we can only function with a few things like skillets," she said.

At the Clock Family Restaurant, a little bit further north on U.S. 41, a sign posted on the front door states that due to the explosion, they can only offer a limited menu.

"It's not going well," said Gus Stettino, the restaurant's manager. "We can only serve cold food."

He said many Naples restaurants were forced to close last night at around 6 p.m. "I was eating at Outback and they had to shut down. It's a major inconvenience for everyone."

Including hotel guests, said Warren Muttiello, the owner of the U.S. 41 Ramada in Naples.

"They have to take cold showers," he said. "But people have been very nice and understanding. It's affected everyone - and that's almost every hotel and restaurant."

Hospitals affected

Karen Krieger, system director, public affairs for Lee Memorial Health Systems reported the following:

  • Gulf Coast Medical Center has no hot water. There is a steam back up that is operational.
  • Gas stoves at Lee Memorial on Cleveland Ave. are not operational. This won't affect patient trays because they are warmed by steam. Employees and visitors using the cafeterias there will have food, but not food normally served using gas stoves.
  • The washers and dryers and all other systems are operational at Lee Memorial, Cape Coral Hospital and Healthpark.

Fort Myers News-Press and 10 News

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