Water tank explodes, lands 400 feet away
Seattle Times staff reporter
John Bellamy had just finished installing a new windshield in a truck when he felt a bone-jarring explosion. Knocked to the ground by a flying chunk of concrete, Bellamy slowly got up on his hands and knees as glass, bricks and building material rained from the sky.
What amazes fire officials is that Bellamy and a handful of others were not seriously hurt when an electric water heater exploded yesterday, blasting through the roof of a Burien store and rocketing 400 feet into the parking lot of a nearby fast-food restaurant.
"I was lucky. I feel grateful and blessed," said Bellamy, who was working about 20 feet from the blast.
Three people were slightly injured. A 50-year-old Burien woman was more seriously hurt. She was taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle with second-degree burns and possible internal injuries and was listed in satisfactory condition last night.
Veteran firefighters said they could not believe no one died or was critically hurt in the blast at Southwest 152nd Street. The explosion closed the street for 3-1/2 hours and drew scores of spectators.
"It was a pretty powerful blast, and we're very fortunate more people weren't hurt," said Hudson. "It could have been a lot worse,"
The explosion, which happened just before 10:30 a.m., was caused by intense steam pressure that built up inside the water heater, investigators said.
"The pressure-relief valve had been capped, and the tank was partially drained of water," said King County Fire Battalion Chief Doug Hudson. "It built up ... pressure and exploded."
The shell of the water heater — a cylinder about the size of an oil drum — blasted through the roof, rocketed over a Taco Bell, across First Avenue South and into the parking lot of a Pizza Hut.
Fire investigators said they did not yet know whether the pressure-relief valve had been capped on purpose or by accident. The valve is the most important safety device found on a water heater, according to the National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors. Explosions involving water heaters can generate enough impact to lift a house off its foundation; since 1990 more than 11,000 boiler and pressure-vessel accidents have been reported in the United States.
The low-slung building, called the Plaza Zacatecas, 123 S.W. 152nd St., houses several small businesses including a Mexican restaurant, a video and grocery store, and a butcher shop specializing in meats used in Latin American cooking.
Hudson said the owner of the building, listed by King County property records as Miguel R. Garcia, was out of town and unavailable for comment.
Initially there was speculation that the explosion was caused by a natural-gas leak. That proved not to be the case. Puget Sound Energy spokeswoman Dorothy Bracken said the explosion damaged a natural-gas meter in the alley behind the building, which then caused a leak.
Utility workers shut off the gas, and businesses adjacent to the restaurant were evacuated and did not reopen for business yesterday.
At Speedy Auto & Window Glass, where Bellamy works, Keith Armstrong, another employee, walked around the parking lot inspecting the damage. He found a birdbath-size crater in the roof of his van. "Think if that hit you in the head. I can't believe nobody got killed."
And Charlene Mjelde of Seattle who was getting the windshield fixed, discovered her immaculate big truck was peppered with dings and a fist-size dent.
She was disappointed by the damage, but still, she sought out Bellamy. "I'm sure glad you weren't hurt," she said.
"Me, too," he said, as others offered him a pat on the back or a handshake. "Me, too."
Christine Clarridge can be reached at 206-464-8983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.