A handful of firefighters remained overnight today to monitor a butane fire in Rapho Township that seriously injured one man and prompted road closings and evacuations earlier in the day.
Although fire no longer raged at the site, a small flame continued to burn this evening as residual product burned off in the lines between a railcar and compressor at Lancaster Propane Gas, 55 Maibach Lane, off Route 230 near Mount Joy.
An official said it was unknown how long it would take for the flame to burn itself out. Safety reasons prompted officials to let the fire burn out rather than extinguish it.
Also, a man hurt in the blaze remains hospitalized in the burn center at Lehigh Valley Hospital.
John Wolgemuth, the propane firm's terminal manager, was listed in critical condition Wednesday, according to a spokeswoman for Lehigh Valley Hospital.
Wolgemuth was not burned by the flames but did sustain butane freeze burns on his chest, according to the company's CEO Paul Wheaton. Wolgemuth was taken to Hershey Medical Center and then transferred to Lehigh Valley.
Wolgemuth was on top of a rail car hooking up piping linking the car to the compressor when he was hurt, Wheaton said.
The fire, which broke out around 10:30 a.m., resulted in the evacuation of a nearby Sheetz convenience store, a hospice center and several neighboring businesses.
Roads into Mount Joy, including a section of Route 230, were closed.
All had been reopened by this evening. An evacuation order was lifted at 5:30 p.m. and persons were permitted to return to their homes and businesses.
Duane Hagelgans, Lancaster County Emergency Management spokesman, said he didn't believe the firm would be operational Wednesday because of damage to equipment.
He said state and local officials will assess the incident, likely Wednesday, and address any issues associated with the leak of a hazardous material.
Wheaton did not immediately return a call for comment tonight.
According to Hagelgans, the fire broke out near a 30,000-gallon tanker car on the site. Instead of completely extinguishing the blaze, firefighters let the butane burn off until the source of the leak could be found and the flow of butane stopped.
If the fire were extinguished, he said, the escaping butane could reignite.
Firefighters also used water to cooled nine nearby rail tanker cars on the site to reduce the risk they might explode.
Although the incident didn't involve Norfolk Southern rail cars, emergency management officials reached out to Norfolk Southern for assistance.
"They're the ones with knowledge of these types of situations, so it made sense to consult them," Hagelgans said.
He said officials not only assisted with information but also responded to the scene.
"Their help was invaluable," he said.
Hagelgans said tonight that officials did not know what sparked the fire.
He said the cause will be determined by a regulatory authority, not local fire officials.
As fire raged at the site, businesses were evacuated from Eby Chiques Road to Cornerstone Drive, and Amtrak suspended train service between Lancaster and Harrisburg.
Amtrak restored service at 4:45 p.m.
Fourteen residents of Hospice and Community Care at 4075 Old Harrisburg Pike were relocated to a Lancaster General Health facility, and residents of the neighboring Pinehurst Manor development were urged to evacuate.
A resident of that neighborhood, Willard Reigel of 630 Connie Drive, said he heard police cars and fire trucks this morning and noticed the flames rising above the trees across Route 230.
"I saw the black clouds of smoke and thought, 'I know this isn't good,'" said Reigel, who left his house with his wife, Shirley, at the urging of police.
The fire also gave the Reigels' neighbor, Claudette Dunn, a scare.
"The flames, they were bigger than those trees," she said. "I said, 'Oh my God.'"
"It scares you because it's too close to home."
Some 150 firefighters and EMS personnel responded to the blaze. Two hazardous materials teams and a foam task force were called to the scene, and more than two dozen fire units were working the blaze.
Monitors were set up around the perimeter of the property to detect escaping butane.
Route 230 was closed between Lefever Road and Old Harrisburg Pike, and the Route 230 exit of Route 283 was closed.
The evacuations were done as an "overabundance of precaution, just in case of (a larger) fire or explosion," Wheaton said this morning.
He also described what he believed occurred.
"An electric motor at the compressor used to pump butane failed and caused the fire," he said. The fire likely heated up a hose, causing it to leak butane, which may be how Wolgemuth was exposed, he added.
The blaze was limited to the piping area between the railcar and the compressor, Wheaton said, and was fed by the butane coming from the car until valves on the pipes were shut off.
Wheaton said the railway car did not catch fire, just the piping between the car and a compressor.
Rail cars each can carry up to about 30,000 gallons of butane, he said. If the butane in one of them ignited all at once, there would have been a larger fire.
But that is unlikely because of the way the butane is unloaded from the railcars, Wheaton said. Pressure used to unload the liquid butane prevents fire from spreading back into the railcar.
Railcars are parked at a compressor mounted outside on a concrete pad at the plant, he said.
Wheaton said Lancaster Propane unloads butane from railcars from places like Pittsburgh and Ohio. The company stores it and loads trucks to deliver it to refineries and eventually gas stations in Philadelphia, New Jersey and Maryland.