UPDATED: Investigation into Vashon Energy fire closed, cause ruled accidental

King County fire investigators have closed the investigation into the cause of a propane explosion and fire at Vashon Energy that sent three people to the hospital Friday. The cause has been ruled an accidental propane vapor explosion, investigators said Monday.

The fire broke out about 12:30 p.m., and Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) responded to the scene at the corner of Vashon Highway and 204th Street, where the building was fully engulfed in flames and windows were blown out from the force of the explosion. VIFR Assistant Chief Bob Larsen, who led the response effort, said he arrived within three minutes and the engine within five minutes of the dispatch. VIFR firefighters, assisted by off-island crews including those from Kent, the city of SeaTac, Tukwila and North Highline, remained on the scene for several hours and staffed the main VIFR station on Bank Road.

“It went well,” Larsen said Friday evening. “I could not have asked for a better outcome.”

Larsen said he had firefighters focus initially on cooling the 18,000-gallon and 500-gallon propane tanks nearest to the building to prevent them from exploding, but he noted he believed that the risk was manageable from the start.

“I was confident we could control it,” he said.

Vashon Energy is owned by Amerigas, a nationwide propane distribution company, which purchased the business from Jim Warren when he sold it two years ago. Three of the company’s employees were at the building at the time of the explosion, including longtime islander Nancy Weed, who has worked at the business since 2007. She and driver-in-training Jody Paulson were taken via ambulance to Tacoma General Hospital, where they were examined and released, Weed said. Initially, reports indicated that Weed had suffered a broken arm, but she said Monday it is only badly bruised and noted that her injuries are minor. She added that Paulson, who had been in the office area of the building, was not injured. However, Owen Dailey, a substitute driver who had been working on the the island frequently in recent months, suffered severe burns to his face, arms and legs and was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center, where he is recovering.

On Monday, Weed recounted that in the early afternoon on Friday she and Dailey were in the work area of the building — the southern part of the building nearest to 204th Street — with the bay doors open. He was trying to replace a nozzle on a hose and using a vice to pry off a valve, when apparently it started leaking. The explosion occurred then, she said, throwing Dailey more than 20 feet out the door and pushing her out about 10 feet, with flames rolling overhead. Dailey took the full brunt of the blast, sheltering her from some of its force. Two propane trucks were nearby and Dailey made them his first priority after the explosion occurred.

“I remember him flying through the air, landing in the parking lot and start running toward the truck,” she said.

She does not recall what happened after that, as Nick Carleton, a witness who had been driving by with his brother Zach, was urging her to get up and cross the street.

While the fire was still in progress, the Carleton brothers shared their story. They had been heading north on north on Vashon Highway, with Nick, 27, the driver and Zach, 19, the passenger.

“I saw some smoke coming off the roof of the back portion of the building, and I thought that was kind of weird,” Zach said. “I kept looking and I saw fire inside the back of the building through the windows.”

Then he said there was an explosion and they saw a man, later identified as Dailey, jump out of the flames.

“It was like Captain America, this guy just jumped out with the explosion,” Nick said. “Zach immediately started yelling at me to pull over.”

The two parked across the street on 204th, and Nick immediately ran up to the man.

“He was burned pretty badly. He was wearing shorts, and they were probably second- and third-degree burns all over his legs,” Nick said. “He was wearing a raincoat and that had melted.”

While Zach called 911, Nick, a former Air Force firefighter, saw a woman — Weed — outside, who appeared to be having trouble standing up. He dragged her away from the building and went inside to see if anyone was still inside. A second woman outside — Paulson — appeared to be unharmed. Nick said the building appeared empty, but noticed the two propane trucks and one was still hooked up to a propane hose and was being filled. He and Dailey grabbed fire extinguishers and emptied them onto the fire near the truck.

“If that thing (the truck) went, it would’ve been bad,” Nick said.

Paulson grabbed the keys to the propane trucks, and Dailey moved them away from the flames. Paulson’s and Weed’s cars were also parked near the building, but could not be moved in time and burned.

Rick Wallace, who heads Vashon’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) Team, arrived on Friday to assist as well. The team had not been officially activated, but he went to see if assistance was needed. There, he spoke with the King County Office of Emergency Management.

Nearby Vashon High School was not evacuated, but Vashon Youth & Family Services, who has an office across the highway, moved their employees to the high school. Had the situation been worse and an evacuations needed, Wallace said the members of the EOC team would have provided information to the public, arranged for sheltering and taken care of logistics for “a whole litany of things” to support the fire district.

On Saturday evening, KOMO News visited Harborview Medical Center and interviewed Dailey, who has been heralded by some as a hero for moving the trucks after having been severely burned. Larsen called his effort very helpful, preventing the department from having to cool those vehicles as well and work around them as they fought the fire.

”(I feel) sad and happy. I’m alive and I have good spirits,” Dailey said in the KOMO News story.

His wife Michal added that before the explosion, he could smell fumes in the building.

“It’s unbelievable,” she added. “I mean unbelievable to walk away and talk about an explosion that happened yesterday and you’re alive and talking about it today.”

On Monday, Amerigas responded to the incident with a statement, saying their hearts and minds were with the three employees who were injured during the fire.

“The safety and security of our employees, our customers, and the public-at-large is our number one priority,” company spokeswoman Kate Stickel wrote in an email. “We are grateful to the Vashon Island fire department and all emergency responders for their tremendous assistance and effort. We continue to work cooperatively with these public safety officials to investigate the cause of this incident.

We’re also pleased to report that we do not expect any interruption to service for our customers, and they should continue to call our number for any assistance they require.”

Weed noted that Vashon Energy expects to resume home deliveries today and that the company is trying to get a portable unit or rent office space on the island. Customer records were retrieved from the building on Saturday and are available.

“The company is doing everything in their power to get things up and going,” she added.

She noted that the company is very safety-minded, and despite the turmoil of recent days, she is looking ahead.

“I look at this as the glass is half full, and I am alive,” she said. “We will rebuild and keep going.”