By Mannix Porterfield
As the day dawned Jan. 30, 2007, nothing seemed out of the ordinary in the sleepy community of Ghent.
Then, at 10:56 a.m., the ground rumbled and the air was filled with so much debris some thought an earthquake had ripped apart the earth.
Six years ago today, one of two 500-pound above ground propane gas tanks sprung a leak at a Little General Store, touching off an explosion that left four people dead, and five others injured seriously.
Seven homes in the vicinity were damaged. Windows were blown out at Ghent Elementary School.
Large vehicles, among them a fire engine and ambulance, were flipped by the terrific concussion.
Killed in the horrific blast were Frederick Burroughs, 51, a Raleigh County building inspector and Ghent volunteer firefighter; Craig Lawrence Dorsey II, 24, a Ghent EMT/firefighter; and two Appalachian Heating technicians, Jeffrey Lee Treadway, 21, and Glenn Ray Bennett, 44.
Then-Gov. Joe Manchin sped to the scene, along with a number of regional legislators, stunned by the damage scattered over a wide area. To some, the scene resembled a war zone.
“Six years ago, I witnessed the destruction and devastation of the terrible explosion at Flat Top Little General Store,” Manchin said.
“Gayle and I join fellow West Virginians as we pause and reflect on those who were lost and critically injured on that dreadful day. Our hearts remain with the families.”
For the families, grief hasn’t abated.
“We still have the pain of the loss and we still miss him terribly,” Hazel Burroughs, widow of Frederick, said as the sixth anniversary of the tragedy approached.
The couple’s daughter, Lindsay, became engaged over the Christmas holiday, her mother pointed out.
“And her Dad is not going to be here to walk her down the aisle,” she said.
“My children still miss their dad. It doesn’t matter that our son is going to be 25 and my daughter is going to be 19. They still need their dad. I thought I would grow old with my husband and he’s not here now. A lot of people go through it. I think of the Upper Big Branch widows and I know what they’re going through. A lot of people say, ‘I know what you’re going through,’ but they really don’t until you go through a loss like that.”
Meaningful but misguided sympathizers often express a desire that a survivor can get over such a loss, but to the bereaved, there is no enduring solace.
“What does it mean to ‘get over’?” Burroughs asked.
“Someone that you loved, that was the most important person in your life — your parents, your child, your spouse? How do you get over that? I don’t think I understand that.”
Fond memories ease the suffering to a point, and for them, Burroughs is grateful.
“I will say memories are a gift from God, the most wonderful thing,” she said.
“You can remember the good times. And even the bad times you can look and laugh about. They weren’t as bad as you thought they were at the time. That’s the good thing. My kids have a lot of good memories of their dad. He was a true dad in every sense of the word. He took time for his kids and time for his family. We did a lot of things as a family. He did a lot of things with both our children.”
Owing to her father’s influence, Lindsay Burroughs is now a volunteer firefighter, and her brother would be had not circumstances not prevented this from occurring, their mother said.
“They learned so much in the short span of time that they had with their dad,” she said.
“My daughter had only 12 years with him, almost 13, and my son 19 years with him. But they learned so much from him about being a good person, about being a responsible person, about working hard and about caring for the world around you. There was never a time when someone asked him for help that he wasn’t right there.”
To the fallen fire captain, the values he instilled in his children exceeded material, worldly goods.
“We’re not a wealthy family,” Burroughs said.
“The most important things we had were sharing our time together and through that, they learned values and how to take care of themselves.”
In its report, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said the blast occurred while an inexperienced hand sought to transfer propane from a tank against an outside wall of the convenience store.
As a result of its exhaustive inquiry, many recommendations made by the CSB were adopted.
A junior propane service technician was attempting to transfer the chemical, without supervision, to a new tank from an old one on the outside. Its location was in violation of state and federal regulations. As the technician removed a plug from the liquid withdrawal valve on the old tank, it apparently malfunctioned, leading to an uncontrollable discharge of propane. That allowed propane to seep through a restroom ventilation system.
Before the accident, the technician had undergone only 45 days of limited, on-the-job training with a supervisor, the CSB said.
Among its recommendations put in practice is one that provides guidance for those working with liquefied petroleum gas. That entails training with a defined curriculum and testing, a move that resulted in an “open acceptable” status determination last April.
The board’s chairman, Rafael Moure-Eraso, encouraged the National Fire Protection Association to permanently adopt training and testing requirements for those working with propane to cut down on injuries to them and the general public.
On a positive note, the CSB found it gratifying that the state fire marshal’s office updated the code dealing with the qualifications and training of propane handlers.
Within a year, the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials devised a guide card for propane emergencies to help 911 operators.
But the CSB has found “unacceptable” the failure of the West Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services to require hazardous materials response refresher training for all emergency medical personnel across the state.
“To date, training occurs only once every two years,” the board said on its Web site.
“The CSB believes recurrent annual training is critical to receiving the materials so we can determine this ‘closed acceptable.’”
A similar recommendation was made to the West Virginia Fire Commission but no action has been taken, the CSB said. Yet, the status is deemed “open” because the board has been told that revised evaluation forms requiring the annual training have been completed.
An independent federal agency that looks into serious chemical accidents, the board cannot levy fines or issue citations, but does make recommendations to various agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
On Capitol Hill, in advance of the anniversary, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said, “The day will serve to remind us of the loved ones lost, but also that they did not die in vain.”
“We give new life to their sacrifices by making life safer for millions with new standards and precautions. And this is a day to thank our first responders, who daily commit their lives to the service of others. Their sacrifices are enshrined in the Ghent tragedy forever and a day.”
In memory of the fallen, the American Red Cross is conducting a blood drive today from noon until 6 p.m. at the Ghent VFD. The drive is held every year on the anniversary of the explosion
State Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, was instrumental in getting a bridge named after Burroughs, the new span on the East Beckley Bypass that moves traffic into the Stanaford area.
In Sophia, friends and family members gathered in June 2010 to dedicate another bridge — this one honoring Dorsey — in a ceremony attended by two lawmakers who keyed the memorial, Delegate Rick Moye, D-Raleigh, and former Sen. Richard Browning, D-Wyoming.
Browning was the principal advocate of the span, located on the Coalfields Expressway. It was with the Sophia VFD that Dorsey began his service as a firefighter.
At the time of the dedication, James Belcher of the Ghent VFD said of Dorsey, “He was a great person, a great EMT and a great firefighter.”
One year from now, surviving families expect to have in place a memorial at the ill-fated convenience store.
“Families have met over the past several months and agreed on a design,” Burroughs said.
“We have a cost estimate and a builder. We’re just beginning to start the fundraising phase. Little General has given us their blessing to have a portion of the property to build the monument on.”
All four victims will be featured on the stone marker with an individual column, highlighted by a bronze coin with a picture and synopsis of their lives.
“It will kind of fit in with the outdoors, woodsy area,” Burroughs said.
“One plaque will tell the story of what happened. We hope to have a picture of the store the way it was that morning and a picture as it was that evening. One column will be devoted to the survivors. We call them ‘our angels that lived.’”
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