Report: Hazardous mix of chemicals caused explosion in Guthrie, Kentucky

Chemical explosion investigators in Kentucky believe a waste product being collected from Quick Turn Anodizing reacted with an organic fat – possibly cooking oil – causing the 500-pound collection tank to boil and blow up. The mega-force blast killed two people and injured at least three others.

The large-scale chemical explosion continues to be investigated by the state fire marshal and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. But officials at Todd County Emergency Management have released a preliminary report that explains what may have turned the industrial container into a fiery missile.

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Quick Turn Anodizing Explosion Investigation

The Pritzker Hageman Explosion Law Firm has launched its own inquiry into the incident, which happened over the lunch hour on January 18 in the railroad town of Guthrie, Kentucky. The firm represents burn and explosion survivors, including families of those who died. In the past 20 years, Pritzker Hageman’s top lawyers have handled burn injury lawsuits resulting in settlements worth tens of millions of dollars to survivors. In one case in particular, a Fortune 500 company paid $45 million to settle with a client who survived a fiery explosion with life-threatening burns.

From a legal standpoint, companies are required to follow national safety standards when loading or unloading hazardous materials. Policies, recommendations and regulations are created by institutions like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the American Chemistry Council, National Tank Truck Carriers and the National Transportation Safety Board.

Explosion and burn lawyers not only advocate for their clients but also play the role of public watchdog. Were safety-critical hazardous cargo transfer procedures followed? Who is to blame for the foreign substance that caused the chemical reaction? Was everyone involved in the transfer of liquid properly trained? Those are some of the questions that must be asked.

Incredible force

Chemical Explosion from hazardous mixAccording to the county emergency management report, a vacuum truck waste hauler from Onsite Environmental was removing alkaline lye solution from a holding tank at the Quick Turn Anodizing facility in Guthrie. Near the end of that process, at a few minutes before 1 p.m., white smoke or steam billowed up around the truck parked directly in front of the building, the report said.

Here’s what happened next: 

“Within minutes the tank containing approximately 300 gallons of the (lye) solution catastrophically failed at its end cap seam. The end cap flew approximately 125 feet to the north, landing in a vacant lot. The remainder of the tank went through the exterior of the building, through an interior partition, hitting a support beam and finally coming to a stop about 100 feet away just short of exiting the rear of the building.’’

The report said employee Bryan Bonilla, 34, died when the flying tank struck him and another employee working near the center of the facility. Also injured (fatally as it turned out) was the driver of the truck who was standing near it and was thrown into the vacant lot. The truck driver was later identified as Alex Wix, 21, of Westmoreland, Tennessee. He died on January 23 at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Experts from Todd County Emergency Management surmised that the chemical reaction raised the temperature inside the tank, causing the water portion of the solution to boil. This raised the pressure to a point beyond its designed strength resulting in the failure of the tank seam, the report said.

“At this time it is believed that for some reason an organic fat such as cooking oil became mixed with the alkaline waste water in the tank which resulted in an exothermic saponification reaction,’’ the report said.

Speedy, intelligent response

According to detailed, heartfelt accounts of the emergency response, Guthrie city employee Benn Andrew Stahl and local pastor Greg Mathis were eating lunch together when they noticed the billowing cloud. Both men hurried to the scene and Benn was closest when the blast happened. Benn suffered serious burns and Greg was among the first people to phone in the emergency. He also discerned the priority of patients as emergency responders were on their way, saving precious time.

Jonathan Stahl, Benn’s brother, wrote on Facebook that one of the responders quickly realized the gravity of Benn’s situation and began to evacuate the chemical agent from Benn’s wounds. “That single, instinctual reaction to irrigate the wounds was (likely) the very thing that saved Benn’s life or, at minimum, prevented 3rd degree burns across a greater portion of his torso.’’

The responder, a family friend, helped Benn into the nearest vehicle and rushed him to the emergency room. ER personnel “got Benn headed in a better direction’’ and transferred him immediately to the burn unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Jonathan wrote.

The family reported that Benn eventually improved, particularly his eyesight and he was released to around-the-clock care at home. His wounds – at risk for infection – required frequent dressing, along with eye solution every two hours. His family noted that follow-ups could potentially include reconstructive efforts for his ear.

“All that being said, prayers have certainly been answered in the past 24 hours,’’ Jonathan wrote on Jan. 21. He expressed thanks for living in a community filled with so many people who provided excellent decision-making and care.

Talk to an Experienced Explosion Attorney

Pritzker Hageman is one of the few law firms in the country with experience representing burn survivors and their families. If you or someone you love was burned in a fire or explosion, it is important to talk to a lawyer as soon as possible.

Contact Pritzker Hageman’s team of burn attorneys for a free consultation on what to expect from the legal process, how burn compensation is distributed, and other impacts of taking legal action.