BOLIVAR – One person was confirmed dead from an oil- and natural gas-well explosion Monday morning, but authorities will need additional time to provide positive identification of the victim and an exact cause of the explosion that sent flames and an oil holding tank high into the sky and created a blanket of intense heat that could be felt across the street.
The explosion, believed to have occurred about 9:30 a.m., was in Lawrence Township at a site about two miles south of Bolivar in the vicinity of Bolivar Group Home at 10071 State Route 212, near the Wilkshire Hills subdivision.
Dr. James Hubert, Tuscarawas County coroner, said late Monday that the victim’s name won’t be released until identity is confirmed through the use of dental records. Hubert said once the victim’s dental records are acquired and examined by a specialist, he should be able to confirm the victim’s identity by the end of the week.
The victim, believed to be a 19-year-old male, was painting at the well site, according to Bolivar Fire Capt. Marty Huth, who served as incident commander at the scene Monday.
The actions of that individual, who is believed to have been employed by the owner of the well, are being considered as a possible cause of the explosion, according to a statement Monday night from the Tuscarawas County Sheriff’s Office.
Witnesses had initially reported seeing two workers at the well site, leading to speculation that the blast may have claimed a second victim.
“However, one was later located and confirmed to have left that well site prior to the explosion to check on other wells,” said Sheriff’s Detective Capt. Orvis Campbell.
The explosion, which blew the oil holding tank high into the air and ignited grass and trees for about 100 yards in all directions, was reported to the county’s emergency dispatch center at 9:50 a.m., according to 911 records.
Witnesses, however, said the blast occurred between 9:30 and 9:34 a.m.
The county’s 911 Center received so many calls that it could not answer them all.
Huth said his department initially was called out to investigate a natural gas odor, but in less than three minutes the call was changed to “heavy smoke and flames.”
He said several fires were burning when his department arrived at the scene. Huth said firefighters had most of the tree and
18 minutes after being dispatched.
Huth said firefighters allowed the gas well itself to continue burning to prevent another explosion until additional help from other area fire departments could arrive.
Nathan Mutschelknaus of Dover, an employee of the group home owned and operated by Horizons, was an eye-witness to the explosion.
“I was out back, pressure-washing the porch and moving some of the furniture when the ground started to shake. I was looking over at the oil well, wondering what was shaking. Next thing I know, I heard the loud explosion and felt the shockwave,” Mutschelknaus told The Times-Reporter.
Mutschelknaus said he then saw the holding tank shoot up high into the air, and as it flew, oil leaked out onto the ground below and was running down the driveway near the group home.
“Then I heard the tank land over there,” Mutschelknaus said, gesturing toward the tank’s landing site in a field on the opposite side of the driveway. “I got a little scared, because I didn’t realize at that point that stuff was flying out of there,” he added, referring to the well site.
Mutschelknaus and two other group-home employees, Leslie Roney and Melody Alexander, estimated the well flames were rising about 100 feet into the air at that time. He said the driveway and surrounding grass areas all were ablaze.
“(It was) like a rocket,” said Roney, as she recalled seeing the holding tank fly.
The Sheriff’s Office statement said the tank was propelled an estimated 300 feet into the sky.
“The explosion shook the whole house,” said Alexander. “I looked out the window and I was like … there’s a fire in the back yard, and we went running.”
All three agreed that “some awesome citizens” stopped to assist them as fire enveloped the area and threatened the group home.
Among them was Russ Sands of Zoarville, who was driving by on Route 212 with his 10-year-old granddaughter, Felicity, when he saw the holding tank “go up in the air. It was pretty high.”
Then Sands saw a huge cloud of black smoke, and he stopped to assist with watering down the group home and its surrounding area with a garden hose.
Brandie Hanley, who resides on Hess Mill Road NE, on the opposite side of Route 212, said the explosion shook her whole apartment, causing the rear and basement doors to pop open.
“I came outside because I thought someone had wrecked into the house,” she said. That’s when she saw the holding tank in the air and felt the ground shake as it landed, creating “instant black smoke and flames.”
Hanley said the time was “right around 9:30 a.m.” She attempted to call 911, but could not get through.
An amateur photographer, Hanley got her camera to begin taking photographs, but discovered the battery was dead. She replaced the battery and in a few minutes was taking some of the earliest photos of the disaster area.
Hanley said she first thought an airplane had crashed. But as soon as she could see through the thick smoke, Hanley realized it was something else.
Hanley used a telephoto lens and stayed away from the scene. “The heat from the fire was so hot I could feel it across the street,” she said.
Huth said the investigation is being handled by the state Fire Marshal’s Office, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Oil and Gas Division, as well as the Tuscarawas County Sheriff’s Department.
Published reports indicate the well is owned by MKE Producing, a private investment group.
By Joe Mizer