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Gasoline Tanker Explodes in Michigan’s Saginaw River

September 17, 1990 GMT

BAY CITY, Mich. (AP) _ A tanker carrying about 1 million gallons of gasoline exploded and burned Sunday on the Saginaw River, injuring most of the 18 people aboard and spilling fuel in the water.

The fire was too hot for firefighters to douse, and officials waited for it to burn itself out, said Coast Guard Lt. Tom Koontz.

One person from the ship was missing, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Gerald Backus. Gov. James Blanchard visited the site and declared the blaze an emergency, freeing state aid and assistance.

The fire was reported at 8:45 a.m., while the tanker was unloading at the Total Refinery Dock Facility, and was still burning Sunday evening.

Authorities warned spectators to clear the area in case of multiple explosions.

″A few people blew right off the boat and slammed ashore,″ said Bay City police Officer Kenneth Adcock. ″The sky is covered with black smoke. If it blows again, it’s going to be a big one.″

Witnesses said the black smoke blocked out the sun throughout the afternoon.

The tanker, owned by Cleveland Tankers Inc. of Cleveland, was carrying about 20,000 barrels of gasoline or about 1 million gallons, said Koontz. It has a capacity of about 54,000 barrels.

″That’s the estimate. That’s a lot of gas,″ Koontz said.

The state Department of Natural Resources was conducting water and air pollution tests Sunday to check for environmental contamination, spokeswoman Susan Henry said.

A gasoline spill is less damaging than an oil spill because ″it’s volatile and it evaporates,″ she said, adding that two booms were strung downstream from the ship to contain any spilled fuel.

Ronald Stopyak had returned home 15 minutes before the blast from working at the Bay Chemicals Co. directly across the river from the tanker. He said he raced back to work after hearing the explosion.

″I thought the plant exploded and when I got out there I saw black smoke everywhere,″ he said. ″I saw the employees on the ship go overboard.

″It was really hot. I could feel the heat from across the river.″

His wife, Cheryl, said their house is less than two blocks from the explosion and was shaken.

″It was like a slow rumbling, it got louder and louder like thunder,″ she said.

Two Coast Guard helicopters sprayed fire-fighting foam while they rescued crew members from the tanker, said Lt. Dennis Secor.

Coast Guard crews secured the tanker with cables to prevent it from drifting into a nearby bridge, he said.

Bay Medical Center spokesman Curt Miller said three of the 17 crew members treated there were admitted. Two had head injuries, a third suffered chest pains. Police initially reported that one victim had suffered a heart attack.

Bay City is a town of 40,000 on Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay, about 100 miles northwest of Detroit.

The 380-foot tanker Jupiter was hauling unleaded gas from a Canadian port to the terminal, said Roger Schrum, a spokesman for the Ashland Oil Inc., of Ashland, Ky., which owns Cleveland Tankers.

The Jupiter, built in 1976 in Jennings, La., is a double-lined tanker with six storage compartments, Schrum said.