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Van explosion hurls debris a block away

The ingredients for disaster were in place.

An oversized van filled with two 55-gallon fuel drums, two 5-gallon tanks, a bucket full of gas-soaked rags and several aerosol cans.

A little after 4 p.m. Tuesday, it all exploded.

Parts of the van shot more than a 150 yards over houses on the other side of First Street near 74th Avenue N.

Remnants of the fuel drums landed on neighbors' roofs. The concussion broke windows hundreds of feet away.

Two nearby vehicles were destroyed by fire.

Somehow, no one was hurt.

"We had the potential for serious disaster here," said said Lt. Rick Feinberg of St. Petersburg Fire Rescue. "It was a violent explosion."

Bob Heeman, an employee of Techniflow Inc., a St. Petersburg company that services and repairs gas pumps, drove the van to his home at 7481 First St. NE after work on Wednesday, investigators said.

Heeman went inside. About 20 minutes later, he heard a loud explosion, followed by four more blasts.

Heeman told investigators that the fuel drums and tanks were empty. Investigators speculated that fumes from the containers built up in the back of the van, but they were not sure what triggered the blast.

Sometimes, static electricity or a light coming on inside a vehicle can act as the ignition.

The work van was blown apart. Debris wound up a block away. The subsequent fire destroyed two pickup trucks that were next to the van.

The bucket that contained the rags shot across the street and ignited the grass next to the sidewalk. Firefighters extinguished all the blazes in about 10 minutes.

Emergency workers went door-to-door in the neighborhood making sure no one was hurt by flying debris.

Given the damage to the van, Feinberg said it would be "difficult at best" to establish conclusively what triggered the explosion.

Investigators were looking into whether the van and the company had followed state regulations, he said.

Devin Martin, 17, heard the blast and saw smoke rise as he was driving home on First Street. Martin, who lives across the street from Heeman, said a neighbor tried to move one of the pickup trucks after the explosion, but he leaped out when it wouldn't start.

"Right after that, it caught fire," he said. "I guess it's just luck that everyone was okay."

Graham Brink can be reached at (727) 893-8406 or brink@sppimes.com.

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