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FATAL BLAST BLAMED ON VALVE

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A natural gas explosion at an Amoco natural gas production plant that killed one person and injured 11 others Wednesday may have been caused by a malfunctioning check valve.

Officials said it's the first accident they know of involving compressors and natural gas leaks.While Amoco officials refused to comment on the cause of the explosion, company investigators from Wyoming and Colorado were on the scene Thursday to determine how the accident occurred. Investigators from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration were expected to arrive later Thursday to work with Amoco officials.

Dave Phipps, operations center foreman, said the source of the leak has been determined, but the reason for the leak and the reason it ignited have not been confirmed.

However, survivors of the explosion and flash fire told Uintah County authorities they heard a hissing sound of gas escaping from one of eight generators housed in a single building at the Anschutz Ranch East Facility about 15 miles south of Evanston. Seconds later the gas ignited.

"They had only a few seconds warning," said Evanston Fire Chief Jon M. Lunsford. "It happened so quickly, there wasn't any time to react."

The explosion occurred about 1 p.m., blowing out the north end of the building. Some employees were severely burned, while others were seriously injured by falling debris.

Butch Reed of Evanston was trapped beneath the north wall when it fell. He died en route to an Evanston hospital. Five of the injured were airlifted to Salt Lake hospitals with burns, broken bones and lacerations, and two were admitted to the Evanston Regional Hospital. Four were treated at the Evanston hospital and later released.

Two still hospitalized are Mickey Cornelison and Scott Johnson, both of Evanston.

Four of the five flown to Salt Lake City were taken to the University of Utah's Intermountain Burn Center, where they were in serious, but stable condition Thursday morning with 6 to 18 percent of their bodies suffering burns and lacerations, hospital officials said.

Hospital spokesman Bryant Larsen identified the four as Bill Rhoudes, 44, of Cherico, Texas; Dave Duggan, 49; Bill Roberts, 42, and Charles Louderman, 40. Those three men are from Evanston.

The fifth man flown to Salt Lake City was identified as Dale Price, 49, of Painted Post, N.Y. He was taken to LDS Hospital, where a nursing supervisor said he was in serious condition with facial lacerations and rib and shoulder fractures.

Of the injured, seven were Amoco employees and five were contract workers who installed the compressor.

Lunsford said the flash fire and explosion injured some seriously, while others standing next to them were scarcely injured at all.

"Some had singed hair and sunburns; others had major burns," he said. "The flash went right over one guy standing next to the compressor, while others who were almost out the door were seriously hurt."

E. Richard Brewster, Amoco director of public and government affairs, said 15 employees were in the building at the time of the explosion.

The compressors are used to combine natural gas and nitrogen to create a pressurized substance that is piped to natural gas wells to maintain the pressure of underground natural gas reservoirs. A check valve on the compressor keeps the gas from leaking back into the building.

Brewster said the compressor that malfunctioned had just come on line. Workers had just installed the last of eight compressors and had been testing the new one at 1,000 pounds per square inch, a fifth of normal operating capacity.

There were no signs of any problems at that point, Brewster said. But when pressure was increased to 5,800 pounds per square inch, the check valve may have failed.

Employees said when the valve failed a piece of it may have blown upward, striking a light and causing a spark that ignited the gas.

Brewster said investigators are puzzled by the ignition source; he suggested the possibility of static electricity. He said there have been other gas leaks in the past, but they have never ignited. The gas has just dissipated into the air.

"At 6,000 pounds per square inch it doesn't take long to put a lot of natural gas into that building," Lunsford said.

The natural gas was shut off after the explosion, immediately stopping the fire. Crews were able to stabilize the structure and continue operating six of the eight compressors throughout the night. Employees went back to work.

Amoco firefighters had the fire under control by the time city firefighters arrived. The company has brought in a therapist who will counsel any employees who may be suffering from delayed trauma.

Brewster said that natural gas production at an estimated 80 wells in the area is expected to fall from 2,500 barrels a day to about 2,100 barrels a day.