30 years after gas blast: ‘When is a political favor worth 12 lives?’
Three decades after an explosion rocked a natural gas distribution facility in Glenwood Springs, killing 12 employees and injuring 15 others, the disaster still serves as an important industrial workplace safety lesson.
Namely, writes longtime area resident and engineer David Alcott in a recently published article, the Dec. 16, 1985, Rocky Mountain Natural Gas tragedy “could be described as a violation of a basic rule of business, ‘stick to your knitting.’”
“In other words, do what you know, and don’t venture off into what you don’t know without developing or acquiring that expertise,” Alcott writes in the article, which he compiled from interviews with company employees who were there at the time of the accident and in its aftermath.
Written five years ago as an academic paper for a Colorado Mountain College class Alcott was taking, the article was published this month as a safety case study on the website of the Association of Equipment Management Professionals, a Glenwood Springs-based trade group for fleet managers.
In it, those interviewed, including Glenwood Springs resident Steve Shute who was brought in as safety manager with KN Energy, the company that bought RMNG within six months after the incident, pin the blame largely on company executives who, according to Shute, tried to expand into services the company didn’t offer and do favors for clients without proper planning and employee training.
“This was a great example of small errors in judgment creating big messes,” Shute told the Post Independent. “And, when is a political favor worth 12 lives?”
From a workplace safety standpoint, the main lesson learned is to not make employees do things they don’t normally do and aren’t properly trained to do, he said.
“Had RMNG personnel been properly trained and had taken care to implement that training, or not agreed to supply just one customer with propane at retail, the explosion and loss of life could have been prevented,” Alcott concludes in the article.
The accident happened when a delivery truck driver mistakenly removed a pressure gauge from a propane gas tank that was sitting on a flatbed semi-truck trailer and backed into RMNG’s maintenance shop on Devereux Road.
According to reports after the incident, the driver was en route from Craig to Telluride with the tank, which he believed was mostly empty, based on the gauge reading.
By law, the tank should not have been more than 5 percent full to be transported in that manner.
A lawsuit filed on behalf of the families of the victims alleged that the tank was somewhere between 29 and 85 percent full. However, that was never determined, and follow-up investigations suggested the same outcome was likely even if it was less than 5 percent.
“The gauge was in fact an older, manual type where the float moved the needle directly, rather than having a magnetic separation” as the worker, who survived the blast, was used to, Alcott wrote. “Removing the indicator opened the pressurized vessel.”
Once the seal was broken, the shop area filled with gas.
“Upon hearing the whistling noise, people in the lower level recognized that something was wrong, and some began running for the exits, while others worked to shut off electricity,” he wrote.
Before workers could stop the leak or open the bay doors to clear the air, the gas reached an ignition source, likely a hot water heater pilot light, causing an explosion that ripped through the building.
“When the dust settled, there were 12 dead, and 15 injured,” Alcott recounts.
It could have been worse.
“Of the 42 people that could have been in the building, only 27 were present,” he wrote. Many had already gone into the field, while others were not at work that day.
LEST WE FORGET
That cold December morning 30 years ago today, the lives of workers at the relatively small utility company, their families, the community as a whole and even company successors, changed forever.
“It’s not something I like to dwell on, but I certainly haven’t forgotten,” said Rob Trebesh, an engineer for RMNG who survived the blast and whose wife also worked for the company but was on maternity leave at the time.
“I take comfort in the fact that we are still able to walk this earth,” said Trebesh, who was one of those interviewed for Alcott’s article. “We lost a lot of good people that day. Time heals somewhat … but it doesn’t diminish the impact.”
Trebesh doesn’t blame the workers involved, or the safety measures that were in place at the time.
“We had safety measures to the extreme, so you can’t blame it on that,” he said. “The gauge showed the tank was empty … there was no way to know, you have to trust that.”
Rachael Windh was one of the first firefighters on the scene after the explosion, and 30 years later still carries the emotion of what happened that day and how it impacted the community.
“One of our own firemen had a wife who died in there, and a good friend of mine also died,” Windh said. “When you’re in that position, you go into training mode and do everything you’re supposed to do. Then a few days later it hits you. It did change my life a lot.”
Glenwood Springs native and current City Councilman Stephen Bershenyi was living in Denver at the time, but soon heard about the tragedy back home.
“It’s one of those days you never forget,” he said. “Glenwood Springs was quite a bit smaller back then, and everybody knew someone who was directly affected.”
That day also changed Shute’s life, “and I wasn’t even here yet,” he said.
“Six months later, I’m a snot-nosed engineer and manager moving from Nebraska to Glenwood Springs to be KN’s emissary to their new division,” Shute said. “All of my newly assigned employees were there that terrible day, but somehow escaped with there lives.
“There was plenty of PTSD to go around, and they still had to keep the company going … with all the managers dead,” he said.
Those who lost their lives that day were Tom Bolin, Brian Carroll, Cindy Cowling, Harley “Dick” Eckert, Barbara Feld, Larry Hutson, Shelby Jackson, Jim Joslin, Teri Luetke, David Neal, Allen Rhodes and Rex Rhodes.
Two of the victims had local recreational amenities named after them, including the Joslin ski run and Sunlight Mountain Resort and the softball field at Two Rivers Park, which was named after Luetke, an avid softball player.
The band shell at Two Rivers Park was also built and dedicated to the memory of those killed, and includes a plaque with their names.
The site of the disaster, which has never been redeveloped, also has a small monument bearing a plaque that reads: “This site is sacred to the memory of twelve persons who perished here in the explosion of the Rocky Mountain Natural Gas Company operations office on Dec. 16, 1985.”
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