Lakeland, Florida -- Neighboring workers rushed outside when they heard a blast at the Whitlock Packaging Corporation on Tuesday morning.
The Lakeland Fire Department suspects natural gas was the cause of the 7:50 a.m. explosion at Whitlock, which is a drink packaging facility located at 2090 Bartow Road where non-carbonated teas and juices are manufactured.
The explosion sent a massive 60,000 pound steel boiler tank crashing through a concrete block wall. It landed onto railroad tracks nearby.
Crystal Garcia and McKenzie Spoerlein work for Express Employment Professionals across the street. Spoerlein says, "Just the sound of it and how loud it was - it was definitely something that was not good."
The two women were just starting their work helping others find work when they heard it. Garcia says, "It was like a dumpster being emptied into a dump truck - you could just hear a crash."
They say when they rushed outside they could see the massive damage, a huge red steel boiler that had been blown out of the building. They expected the worse. Garcia says, "Just the possibilities of the tragedies that could have happened really, really worried us. They really did."
And as they looked at the damage they noticed steam shooting into the air from the plant and then soot in the air above them. That's when they say they wondered if their own safety was in jeopardy. Garcia describes what they saw, "White. It looked like snow. It was coming down right over our building."
A natural gas blast sends a large tank through a concrete wall and onto railroad tracks.
Kevin Cook, a spokesman for the City of Lakeland, explains what went wrong. "They use steam as a heating agent - as part of the bottling process. They had a fireball explosion from the natural gas that they use to heat the boiler. The boiler shot through the facility and landed on the railroad tracks," he said.
With 85 to 90 workers inside the plant at the time Spoerlein worried about her friend who works there. She says, "She actually was not working at the time it happened so that was a big relief too."
Bart Lewis, the Human Resources Manager for Whitlock, says the production crew was given the rest of the day off since they depend on the steam that's created by the boilers in order to complete their work. There are several boilers at the plant however.
Cook says the one involved in the accident can hold 4,000 gallons of water but was holding 2,000 gallons at the time.