Two men died while working with this Tampa Bay company's product. Now the feds are investigating

Two federal agencies are investigating a June 6 explosion that killed a man who was handling a MagneGas Corp. Pictured is former president of MagneGas Rich Connelly cutting metal using the company's compressed gas. [Courtesy of WALLY PATANOW | Channel 8 2008]
Two federal agencies are investigating a June 6 explosion that killed a man who was handling a MagneGas Corp. Pictured is former president of MagneGas Rich Connelly cutting metal using the company's compressed gas. [Courtesy of WALLY PATANOW | Channel 8 2008]
Published July 25, 2018

PINELLAS PARK — Two federal agencies are investigating an explosion last month that killed a man who died while moving a pressurized gas cylinder filled with MagneGas, a product from an alternative fuel company of the same name in Pinellas Park.

The incident took place in Suwannee County in North Florida and is the third-known explosion involving a MagneGas Corp. container since 2010. Two people have been killed and one injured in the blasts.

MagneGas is a publicly-traded company at 11885 44th St. N that produces a proprietary gas also called "MagneGas" from recycled waste products. It is used in metalwork for cutting. The company touts the product as a "faster, safer and hotter replacement to acetylene," according to its website.

That gas was in a pressurized cylinder at Suwannee Iron Works & Fence on June 6 when Andrew Reynolds, 32, moved it and it exploded, a Suwannee County Sheriff's Office report said.

The blast amputated Reynolds' legs from the knees down and caused significant trauma from the waist down. He was pronounced dead at the scene. The sheriff's report, as well as a July 13 medical examiner's report, said the cause of death was trauma from the blast as well as burns.

Reynolds left a wife and two small children. His family has retained Tequesta lawyer Mark Smith. Smith said the family has not filed suit against the company, but hasn't ruled it out.

"Any compressed gas operation is inherently dangerous, and our hearts go out to those affected by this and all victims of accidents in these related industries," MagneGas CEO Ermanno Santilli said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday. "The industry is well aware that once cylinders leave the company's possession we cannot be certain that OSHA and Compressed Gas (Association) guidelines are followed regarding the transportation and use of compressed gases."

Last week, Santilli told the Times the company has about 6,000 of the cylinders currently distributed. He also acknowledged that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration had opened an investigation into the company last month following an explosion, but declined to discuss what happened.

Along with OSHA, the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is currently conducting an investigation into the cause of the blast, according to a department spokesperson. The federal agency, the Suwannee sheriff's report said, took the exploded cylinder and is having it forensically tested.

This is the second fatality involving a MagneGas cylinder that exploded. In 2015, Michael Sheppard, a 29-year-old Safety Harbor resident working for MagneGas, was killed while performing a routine procedure on a MagneGas cylinder. Sheppard and fellow employee Eric Newell were venting the container, which removes excess fluids, when it exploded.

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Sheppard died from injuries caused by the blast, and Newell suffered permanent hearing loss and burns, according to Bill Corry, a lawyer representing Sheppard's mother in an ongoing lawsuit against MagneGas. Just two days before, the container had been tested by a St. Petersburg facility and pronounced safe.

"They're basically creating bombs and putting them in interstate commerce," Corry said. The issue, lawyers Smith and Corry contend, is unique to MagneGas, as the product inside the containers is solely produced by the company.

Following the 2015 explosion, OSHA opened an investigation, citing the company for 23 "serious" violations and four "other" violations and a $52,045 fine. MagneGas, OSHA said, failed to properly train employees to handle hazardous material and had several tools around the area that could produce a spark and thus cause a fire or explosion. OSHA could not determine the cause of the explosion.

A third explosion took place in 2010, when a MagneGas cylinder exploded at the company's plant, then located in Tarpon Springs, and crashed through the roof of a church next door. According to a Tarpon Springs Fire Department report, no one was in the Community of Christ church when the container plunged through the roof just before 3 p.m.

An unidentified caller alerted the fire department to the incident. The report noted that the "gas company did not want caller to call."

Lillian Postlethwait, pastor at the time, said MagneGas paid for the damages to the church, which included holes in the roof and damage to the choir box and altar.

The company's stock closed Tuesday at 27 cents per share, down just under 2 percent from Monday and down from $11.25 per share a year ago.

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