July 21, 1998
A huge plume of black smoke was visible throughout the Twin Ports Monday following an explosion and fire at a maintenance facility for Como Oil in Superior. Despite the force of the blast that scattered debris all around, only three people were injured. (Bob King / News Tribune)
SUPERIOR RESIDENTS EVACUATED AFTER BLAST
TRUCKS, BUILDINGS DAMAGED; FIRE, SMOKE VISIBLE MILES AWAY
An explosion and fire ripped through a Como Oil truck maintenance shop in Superior Monday morning, injuring three employees and prompting a neighborhood evacuation.
The explosion ignited a fire that destroyed the building and heavily damaged a house just a few feet from the shop in Superior’s Itasca neighborhood. Burning propane tanks sent black smoke pouring into the air that could be seen in Duluth.
No one was seriously injured.
"We’re not sure yet what caused the explosion," Superior fire investigator Don Piper said Monday afternoon.
At least one propane truck parked inside the building at 5122 E. Third St. was destroyed; the propane tank on another Como Oil truck parked outside burned throughout the afternoon, shooting a torchlike flame skyward.
Four people in the building when the fire started got out safely, according to Tony Sega, Como Oil’s vice president of operations. One employee was taken to a hospital, where he remained later Monday. The others were treated and released for minor injuries, Sega said. Their names weren’t available Monday.
Como Oil is a home-heating company that sells propane, fuel oil and natural gas. The building that burned was owned by Como Oil Co. and leased to Twin Ports Fleet Maintenance, a Como subsidiary that provides maintenance for all of the company’s delivery trucks. The facility also services trucks for a variety of other local companies. Como trucks also fill up on home heating oil at the site.
Though a few Como trucks were damaged by the fire and explosion, Sega said there will be no interruption of service to customers.
"It’s only a fleet maintenance shop. Only a couple of trucks were damaged and we have a lot of trucks," he said.
The building once was home to Como offices, but all business records are kept at the company’s Duluth headquarters and were not damaged.
Authorities were notified of the explosion at Twin Ports Fleet Maintenance about 11:30 a.m. When firefighters arrived, the building was fully engulfed, Piper said. All the city’s fire units responded, he said.
For a time, authorities feared more explosions were likely.
"Yes, the potential is there," Superior Police Capt. Scott Campbell said at the time.
Fire officials move closer to the scene Monday as crews work to bring the blaze under control. People who live in the neighborhood were evacuated for fear that the fire might trigger another explosion — but the fire was brought under control without further incident. (Renee Knoeber / News Tribune)
Although more explosions didn’t happen, Superior’s hazardous materials response plan kicked in.
U.S. Highway 2 was blocked to traffic from 39th Avenue East to the State Highway 13 overpass. Nearby businesses closed and about two dozen households in a 1 1/2 -block radius were evacuated by city crews.
About 30 residents were taken by Duluth Transit Authority bus to Lake Superior Elementary School a couple of miles away.
Betty Hofstedt of East First Street was among those evacuated. She was on the phone when she heard the explosion.
"It’s scary because that gas could’ve blown up this whole area," she said after returning home.
Carl Beckwell, also of East First Street, said the explosions could have been more disastrous, since a pipeline runs underneath the area.
"As far as the law enforcement officials and the fire department goes, I think they did a good job, considering," he said. "It could’ve been a lot worse than it was."
Josephine Naeyaert was at work when the explosion occurred a block or two from her house. She quickly drove home as her neighborhood was being evacuated. Authorities wouldn’t let her into the area.
"I was worried," she said. "I’ve seen people lose homes and lives and things like that. I didn’t want to see it happen to anybody out here."
Meanwhile, the maintenance shop and the truck’s propane tank continued to burn.
"We’ll let it burn," Piper said of the propane fire. "As long as the gas is venting, it means gas in the pressure tank has someplace to go."
By mid-afternoon, when enough of the gas had burned, crews moved in to extinguish the remaining blaze and put out spot fires.
By 3:30 p.m., Highway 2 was reopened and most evacuees were able to return to their homes. By 7 p.m., the tanker fire had been extinguished and the last of the evacuated residents were allowed back in.
But residents still have some cleanup to deal with.
When he returned to his home, Jack Swonger, who lives two blocks from the fire, noticed an "oily film" on his picnic table in his backyard.
When he ran his finger across it, it was black and greasy.