No one knows for sure what triggered the explosion at a rural Mississippi oil production site near Phillip White's home in the early hours of October 31, 2009. The staggering blast hurled a 20-foot-tall crude oil storage tank nearly 60 yards and killed two teenage boys, one of them White's own son.
"Two wonderful children just gone instantly," White said.
No passing lightning storm caused the blast. No one was loading or unloading at that hour. Only one thing points to cause – the dead teenagers. Friends of the deceased admit that local kids often use oil sites as social hangouts with no realization of the inherent danger.
Cody Hunt, 18, attended school with Wade White, 18, and Devon Byrd, 16, the victims of the October tank explosion near Cairns, MS.
“When we go hang out at an oil site, a bunch of friends and I would usually get a pack of cigarettes and talk about what’s been going on through the week," Hunt said. "It’s like our own little sanctuary where we could be away from everybody.”
The deaths in Mississippi are far from a rarity. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, with help from Industrial Fire World magazine, have compiled a list of 36 teenagers and six young adults who perished in similar explosions at oil sites since 1983. Recent multiple-fatality accidents include a 2003 explosion in Long Lake, TX, that killed four teenagers; a 2005 explosion that killed 19- and 20-year old men in Ripley, OK; a 2007 explosion in Mercedes, TX, that killed three teenagers; and a 2007 explosion in Routt National Forest, CO, that killed two teenagers.
Often, a modest ignition source like a match, cigarette, or lighter was all that it took to trigger a devastating tank explosion.
Told through the eyes and voices of grieving and concerned parents, friends, and local officials, a new CSB safety video, “No Place to Hang Out: The Danger of Oil Sites,” tells about the tragic deaths in Mississippi. The 11-minute video is available on CSB.gov and YouTube and can be obtained free on DVD from the CSB’s online Video Room.
Unfortunately, within only two weeks of the video’s release, two more deaths were reported in similar incidents in Oklahoma and Texas. On April 14 in Weleetka, OK, the day after the CSB’s Mississippi press conference to promote the new video, a 21-year-old male died from burns sustained in an explosion and fire at an unattended oil and gas production site.
On April 26, in New London, TX, one of two 24-year-olds socializing near an unattended rural oil and gas production site was killed in an explosion. The other victim was seriously injured.
The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. Many of those investigations take place in large chemical facilities and refineries and can take several years to complete, CSB board member Williams B. Wark said.
"Just last week I was deployed with an investigation team that went to a refinery in Washington state where there was a tragic explosion – five workers lost their lives," Wark said. "But when we heard about an tank explosion at an oil production site that had taken the lives of two teenagers in Cairnes, MS, on Oct. 31, the CSB decided that an educational program and a call to secure the sites was needed right away."
Concurrent with the release of the video, the CSB released a four-minute safety message by CSB Chairman John Bresland to alert oil and gas companies to the hazard, also available on CSB.gov. A CSB task force would continue to examine the safety issues over the next few months to see if additional, specific safety recommendations are needed, Bresland said.
Unlike the Cairns incident, CSB investigators were able to determine exactly what happened in the Weeletka, OK, explosion. The accident occurred at approximately 9 p.m., while six individuals aged 18 to 32 were socializing at the rural site, which was normally unmanned. The site, which had four petroleum storage tanks and two brine storage tanks, was operated on private land.
The blast occurred about 10 minutes after the group arrived at the site. Investigators determined that a lit cigarette or lighter was the likely ignition source for the explosion, which happened as the 21-year-old male who later died was peering into the hatch on top of a tank containing about 160 barrels of light crude oil. A resulting explosion and fire engulfed the victim and caused a second explosion in an interconnected tank.
The victim, who suffered third-degree burns over 85 percent of his body, was able to describe the accident to emergency response and ambulance personnel, but died the following morning in a Tulsa burn unit. Another individual at the scene suffered second-degree burns. The fire at the site burned for more than three hours before it could be extinguished using foam.
The catwalk leading to the top of the tank was unsecured and readily accessible, said CSB investigator Vidisha Parasram.
“The tank hatches had no mechanism which would permit them to be secured or locked,” Parasram said. “No fire or explosion warning signs or other warning signage was visible anywhere on the site following the accident.”
Witnesses stated that they were drawn to the site when they saw the open gate while driving past. As in Cairns, local teenagers and young adults used the oil sites as a social gathering place.
“These tanks are just the tallest, most interesting things in the middle of nowhere, and so kids go there,” IFW editor Anton Riecher told The New York Times. “They invite boredom.”
IFW publisher David White (no relation to Wade) participated in the CSB video by meeting with friends of Wade and Devon in Mississippi and explaining the science behind the tragedy.
"We have a list in our magazine of major incidents that result in fires and explosions," White told the teens. "My editor came to me one day and asked, "Do you know how many kids have been killed around these oil well sites. I was amazed."
Strangely enough, a storage tank full of crude oil may present less danger than one that is almost empty.
"Above the crude oil is vapor," White said. "If the vapor is mixed with air correctly, you have a combustible vapor space. Those vapors exit through the inspection hatch. If you have vapor and air, all it takes is a spark from a lighter, match or some other source."
The video begins with the earnest voice of a teenager, reading her own words: “My name is Shawn-Ashlee Davis. I’m a senior at Forrest County Agricultural High School in Mississippi. And on October 31, 2009, two people who were very close to me, and the ones I loved, died in an instant. Was it a car crash? No. It was an oil tank explosion.”
In the video, Davis speaks for other teenagers searching for ways to prevent these recurring accidents. She asks: “Why? How? We wanted answers. We wanted the truth. And now we want to make a difference.”
Teenagers and parents stated they were unaware of the danger of getting close to oil tanks, whose flammable contents can ignite causing powerful explosions. The oil site where the fatal blast occurred had no fences, barriers, gates, warning signs, or other security measures and was normally unattended.
Although some states and localities require fencing and securing oil sites, the CSB could not identify any federal, state, or local requirement or specific industry guidance for securing the oil site in Carnes, Wark said.
“We did find a patchwork of laws nationwide that don’t uniformly address security around oil and gas wells,” he said. “For example, the city of Laurel, MS, which is located in the county adjacent to the county where this happened, requires oil and gas sites to be fenced.”
The state of California requires barbed wire fencing around oil field facilities. By comparison, Colorado only requires fencing in high population areas. Likewise, Ohio requires fencing in high population areas, plus warning signs and locks on tank hatches when the facility is unattended, Wark said.
“The Board urges oil and gas production companies, state legislatures, and regulators to ensure that oil and gas tank sites are properly secured and have appropriate warning signs to discourage entry,” Wark said. “We also urge parents and teachers to educate teens about the potentially deadly risk from these sites.”
The owners of the tank that exploded in Mississippi told reporters it could not discuss the accident because of the pending negligence lawsuits filed by the families. A spokesperson told the local press that the company complies with all existing rules.
Phillip White told The New York Times that he had sold his house to move farther from the site of the explosion.
“That tank was something I never thought about when I lived next door,” he said. “But after this happened, I couldn’t come or go without looking down there — it was just too close
The important links related to this article include:
Map and Table of Fatalities - PDF Download
Oil Field Explosion Data with Links to Articles - PDF Download
U.S. Chemical Safety Board – “No Place to Hang Out” video
CNN – Fatal gas tank blast brings call for better warnings
The New York Times - Deaths draw attention to dangers of oil tanks