Investigators hope to find answers to massive blast at Hawthorn Power Plant

Date: 02/17/99 22:15

Investigators today hope to get their first close look at KCP&L's Hawthorn 5 power plant, where an explosion early Wednesday rocked people awake 20 miles away, knocked nearby workers off their feet and launched flames 200 feet into the night sky.

"It's a miracle we're still alive," said John Hernandez, a Kansas City Power & Light field equipment operator who was just outside the plant in Kansas City's East Bottoms. "We're very lucky men."

One minor injury was reported. Two railroad workers who had been near the plant went to North Kansas City Hospital for examination, but were released without treatment.

Only 12 workers were on site at the time. It's fortunate, KCP&L officials said, that the blast didn't occur during day shifts, when many more of the plant's 135 employees would have been on duty. The plant will be shut down for an undetermined amount of time.

The blast occurred about 12:30 a.m. in the generating station's boiler, company officials said, but its cause was not known. Local, state and federal officials said safety concerns about the plant's wreckage prevented inspectors from touring the facility. They hope to inspect the damage today.

It was not immediately clear what impact the loss of generating capacity at the plant would have on KCP&L's residential and commercial customers.

Much clearer, though, was the blast's devastating power. Only twisted metal and charred wreckage remained of the metal building that had housed the boiler.

"It was massive," Fire Battalion Chief Domenic Serrone said of the destruction. "They lost six floors of an 11-story structure."

KCP&L had yet to place a dollar figure on the damage.

Pam Levetzow, a KCP&L spokeswoman, said the plant was not producing electricity at the time of the blast. The plant had been down this week for repairs unrelated to the boiler.

The generating plant, which produces 15 percent of KCPL's electricity, will be out of operation for an extended time. That's significant, with the summer peak-demand season only a few months away.

Missouri utility regulators said Wednesday that they would assess whether KCP&L will be able to meet its electricity demands this summer if Hawthorn remains out of operation.

Flames in the sky

Meanwhile, environmental regulators tried to determine the effects of the blast, which sent asbestos, a known carcinogen, and other debris airborne over Kansas City's northeast industrial district.

Initial reports from regulators, though, were that air pollution from the blast didn't pose significant public health threats.

"It doesn't look like there was any great hazard," said Mike Manning of Kansas City's air quality office.

Both the Health Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pledged to continue checking the situation. KCP&L set up monitors on site, and the EPA set up monitors near the generating station.

The early monitoring by KCP&L and the EPA showed low levels of asbestos in the air a few hours after the blast, said Art Spratlin, who directs the EPA regional office's programs dealing with air pollution and toxins.

KCP&L also was bringing in crews to clean up asbestos that remained in the wreckage, said Spratlin.

Regulators tested chunks of white insulation material found on the nearby Bayer property. Tests of the insulation material showed it was only 1 percent asbestos, which means it poses no risk, Spratlin said.

Fire and health officials said tests showed that the material that fell on cars near the blast site contained fly ash, not asbestos.

"We don't believe the scattering of fly ash is a concern, from anything we've heard," Spratlin said.

Federal law requires a company to report the airborne release of more than one pound of asbestos. KCP&L made such a report Wednesday, Spratlin said.

Workers won't be allowed back into the plant until fire officials certify that it is safe to re-enter. That also delayed Wednesday's investigations.

Officials at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration want to know whether KCP&L or its contractors had breached federal worker safety regulations.

Fire Marshal Jim Duddy said he planned to help in the investigation of the explosion, but his participation was limited Wednesday.

"We're waiting for the environmental part to get straightened out first," he said. "They don't want us in there (Wednesday) moving things around."

He said large equipment would be needed to secure dangling debris before firefighters could safely investigate.

The boiler that exploded Wednesday had experienced problems at least once before. Last Aug. 19, a welded seam on a pipe inside the boiler ruptured, causing the release of high-pressure steam.

The plant was out of service for 78 days following that incident. KCP&L couldn't say whether the blast Wednesday was related to the August incident.

KCP&L officials also plan to interview employees about whether the boiler was being fired up at the time of the explosion.

Fire in the sky

About midnight, Richard Hickman, a KCP&L field equipment operator, arrived at a shack across the street from the plant. He wanted to fetch a warm jacket for the cold night ahead.

Hickman chatted for a time with co-workers about Chiefs cornerback Dale Carter's signing with the Denver Broncos. Suddenly, the explosion knocked him over. A false ceiling collapsed above him.

It was like a being in the middle of sonic boom, Hickman said.

Quickly, Hickman ran outside to see what had happened. He looked up at towering flames. Workers raced in a pickup truck from the plant.

"They had their hands over their ears and they were moving," he said. "I have a good friend who was in the building, so I made sure he was all right, then I got away from there."

Hernandez, a KCP&L assistant field equipment operator, was outside the plant when it exploded. The concussion from the explosion knocked him off his feet, and left his ears ringing for more than an hour.

"The flames were covering the smokestack -- I mean, I've never seen anything like it before," he said early Wednesday, pointing through the night at the orange-and-white-ringed smokestack towering more than 20 stories above.

Across the metro area, residents rocked out of bed by the blast called 911. A Missouri Highway Patrol dispatcher said some callers who couldn't get through to their local police called the patrol's offices.

At 12:31 a.m., the Kansas City Fire Department dispatched units to a reported explosion at the Hawthorn power plant.

Serrone, the fire battalion chief, sat in the front of his car as it led a pumper and a rescue truck from a fire station at Independence Avenue and Ewing Avenue.

Serrone saw the fire shooting into the sky and debris falling like snow on streets, cars and the neighborhood around the plant.

"It looked like Mount St. Helens," Serrone said.

By the time Serrone arrived at the scene, KCP&L officials had cut off the natural gas that was fueling the fire.

"There were only a few small spots of fire left," he said. "We let those burn themselves out. The structure was basically metal, so there wasn't much to burn."

Firefighters concentrated on helping KCP&L officials account for employees. They called firefighters from other area departments, including Lenexa and Overland Park, which sent trucks with spotlights to illuminate the scene to find the workers. They soon determined that no workers were trapped.

Hours later, Serrone marveled at the power of the blast.

"I've been doing this 27 years and I was in awe of the destruction," he said. "There were I-beams 24 inches wide and girders that were thrown through steel tanks like it was nothing."

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