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Cause of fatal explosion at Tarpon Springs gas facility still unknown

An injured person is loaded into a helicopter ambulance Thursay afternoon at a Magnegas Corp. facility at 150 Rainville Road in Tarpon Springs. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published Apr. 17, 2015

TARPON SPRINGS — The cause of a fuel plant explosion that killed one man and seriously injured another, rattled nearby homes and triggered a power outage remained unknown late Thursday, authorities said.

Tarpon Springs police received 911 calls at 1:56 p.m. about a blast at MagneGas Corp., an alternative-energy company at 150 Rainville Road, just north of the Sponge Docks district.

Officers and firefighters responded and found one worker dead at the scene. Another was flown to Tampa General Hospital with serious injuries, said Tarpon Springs fire Deputy Chief Scott Young.

Their names have not been released, pending notification of family.

At least one other person sustained minor injuries, but were treated on scene.

The explosion happened behind the 5,000-square-foot building. About 20 to 25 employees were evacuated as firefighters searched for hazardous materials. The State Fire Marshal's Office will be investigating.

"Right now we're still trying to get answers," said MagneGas consultant Shepard Doniger. "It's a very close-knit family up there, and we're trying to get to the bottom of this."

In a statement, the company offered sympathy to family of the employees killed or injured and said MagneGas will dedicate all necessary resources to investigate the accident's cause. The company has "strived to create a culture of safe, compliant operations," the statement said.

MagneGas Corp. converts liquid waste into a hydrogen-based "clean burning fuel that is essentially interchangeable with natural gas," according to its website. The company, founded in 2007, also sells equipment for the sterilization of liquid waste and manure for use in various industrial and agricultural settings.

MagneGas, which in March reported having 31 full-time employees, has steadily lost millions in recent years: $6.3 million in 2013 and $7.2 million in 2014, according to the company's latest financial report.

The company is traded on the Nasdaq exchange, but received notice in December that its stock was in peril of being de-listed because it was trading at such a low value per share. MagneGas dipped to 42 cents in January, according to Nasdaq, though it closed in the low 70s Thursday.

It also owns several other properties in the area, including in Pinellas Park, where MagneGas officials previously said they planned to move later this year.

At the site of the explosion, nearby residents watched as investigators gathered.

John Nazario, 16, said he was at his home on Jeru Boulevard when the floor of his house vibrated.

"Everybody heard the explosion," he said. "It sounded like a very loud gunshot. I knew it wasn't a gunshot because it was too loud for that."

Linda Walker was working at Milling Cleanup Services, next to MagneGas, when she heard the blast and saw a plume of smoke.

Pieces of what appeared to be charred metal traveling from the fuel facility slammed into a nearby transformer, she said. The building where she works did not have power for hours.

"Very scary," she said. "I feel for the family of the deceased. This was just horrible."

Times business columnist Robert Trigaux and staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com or follow @lauracmorel.

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