An explosion and fire Thursday hospitalized two workers at an industrial facility in Lockwood, Montana, ended up caused by a gas-powered engine igniting a cloud of gasoline vapor from a tanker they were cleaning, fire officials said.
The Polar Service Center employees are both recovering with non-life-threatening injuries at the University of Utah Health Care Burn Center in Salt Lake City, according to their family members.
Polar is a Houston, Texas-based company with 28 locations across the country, and it has been cited in the past for numerous safety violations and dangerous situations, including at the Lockwood location, which is in southeastern Montana.
Video from inside the warehouse where the employees were working showed one man standing on the open diesel tanker while the other stood on the ground nearby, Lockwood Fire Chief John Staley said Friday.
“You can actually see the vapor from the gas … the vapors just ignite, and we had kind of an initial explosion at ground level and then a larger explosion almost simultaneously” near the tank’s opening, Staley said.
Polar Service Centers is a nationwide chain of facilities that clean, maintain and sell industrial tank trailers and trucks. The two men were technicians responsible for cleaning and maintaining tanks brought to the Lockwood facility, said company president Jerry Cignarella.
The worker on top of the tank trailer, 23-year-old Josiah Coulimore, was strapped into a safety harness, and both Staley and Coulimore’s wife, Danielle, said Friday that it apparently prevented him from being thrown from the trailer. But, Staley said, the video shows the man unable to unbuckle himself from the harness as a fire broke out around him.
“It was fortunate that it pushed him to the back of the trailer, because the flames were off to the sides,” Staley said. “It didn’t stop him from getting burned, but my guess is that it stopped him from getting burned more significantly.”
Danielle Coulimore said her husband suffered second- and third-degree burns on one of his hands, and had second-degree burns on the other. His elbows and the tips of his ears were also burned, either during the explosion or the fire. The hair on the back of his head was also singed, she said.
Coulimore called her as soon as he had escaped from the fire, but because he was being rushed into an ambulance, he only had time to tell her there had been a fire and he was going to the hospital.
Coulimore’s co-worker, Jarred Berns, 41, of Billings, suffered third-degree burns on one of his hands and partway up his arm that may require skin grafts, his mother LuAnn Barman said. He also has second-degree burns on his other hand, his face and his neck, causing substantial swelling and making it difficult for him to talk or eat food. Berns’ back was also burned.
The force of the explosion was substantial. The tank, which Staley estimated had a capacity of 4,000 to 5,000 gallons, could be seen lifting more than a foot into the air, he said, and added the video also showed Coulimore being pushed back “6 to 10 feet” from where he had been standing on top of the tank.
Staley did not believe there were any significant chemical releases into the environment. None of the firefighters who responded have reported any symptoms of exposure to harmful chemicals, he said.
Cignarella, the company president, said as of Friday afternoon he did not have any updates on the medical conditions of the two injured workers. Cignarella said the Lockwood location employs about 20 people.
“We wish both employees a speedy recovery,” Cignarella said. “We’ve got the local management team right now focused on working with the families to make sure we get them what they need.”
Cignarella declined to speculate on what went wrong to cause the explosion, saying instead that a team of employees are headed to the Lockwood site to work with investigators from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The company has been cited by OSHA before for safety violations. In 2017, an explosion at the Polar Service Center in Commerce City, Colorado, sent “debris raining down” into a neighborhood across the street,” according to a local television station. No one was injured in that incident.