Tuesday, Aug. 4, 1998 | 10:59 a.m.
Up to 1,000 pounds of molten magnesium triggered an explosion and fire at the Titanium Metals Corp. plant that sent sparks, flames and a white cloud into the still air over Henderson early today.
No one was hurt, the white cloud was harmless, and plant officials and firefighters say that at no time was the public in any danger from the blast.
"This incident did not pose a threat to the community," one of the plant managers, Bob Blankenship, said about 9 a.m. today. He said the plant, which is 15 miles southeast of Las Vegas, will be repaired in such a way as to prevent a similar incident in the future.
"Timet will always keep the community's safety first," Blankenship said. "We will determine the cause and eliminate it."
All 40 workers on the graveyard shift evacuated the plant because flaming magnesium cannot be extinguished with water, Blankenship said.
The three-hour fire ignited about 12:30 a.m. when molten magnesium spilled into the concrete basement of a production area. While magnesium will burn, officials said there was no danger of an explosion large enough to destroy the plant or pose a threat to the community.
Fire officials about 8 a.m. estimated damage at $300,000.
The Clark County Health District will seek the maximum $10,000 penalty against Timet for releasing smoke, Air Pollution Control Division Director Michael Naylor said today.
"We consider it a violation," Naylor said. The company was fined $8,500 for a smoke release last fall, he said. Timet asked the Health District to allow it to operate the crippled unit without pollution controls, allowing 8 pounds of particulates per hour into the air. The Air Pollution Control Hearing Board will consider that request in the near future, Naylor said.
Today's incident began with spilled metal. The metal triggered an explosion and fire in fiberglass wrapped around an 8-inch duct. The duct leads to a dust collector that acts like a chimney to gather dust and particles from the unit. Moisture in the fiberglass may have contributed to the fire, firefighters said.
"Something went wrong," said Mike Cyphers, a chemical engineer with the Clark County Fire Department. "The plant is designed to prevent this from happening, but somehow it exploded.
"Anytime we have any incident at the plant, we have to investigate," Cyphers said. "This is the biggest fire to date."
Another blaze lit the night sky at Timet 10 years ago on Aug. 10 when molton magnesium spewed brilliant white sparks and shot flames 50 feet into the air.
The initial blast in the duct today spread the fire into an adjoining area where an industrial trash Dumpster and tires stacked in a 15-square-foot enclosure were destroyed.
Clark County Fire Department spokesman Bob Leinback said nearby homes and businesses were not evacuated because the white cloud was not toxic.
St. Rose Dominican Hospital and the Reserve Casino, however, were ordered to shut down their ventilation systems to avoid gases such as carbon monoxide from being sucked into their buildings.
The Nevada Highway Patrol and Henderson Police blocked exits from U.S. 95 to Lake Mead Drive and closed Pabco Road at the Boulder Highway for about two hours, preventing motorists from approaching the site on Lake Mead Drive.
As many as 50 firefighters, police and emergency medical personnel stood by as the magnesium burned. Firefighters and Timet workers covered the metal oozing like lava with salt to stop the fire, declared out at 3:30 a.m. Salt robs the magnesium of oxygen, smothering the metal burning at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.
A water pipe the size of a garden hose burst during the fire and spread the molten mass, making it more difficult for fire crews to stop.
Fire investigators remained at the plant this morning to piece together what happened.
Timet Human Resources Manager Brent Peterson said the damaged unit, one of three operating at the time, separates magnesium from titanium and recovers the metals at the plant.
"The main thing is that no one was harmed," he said, standing in front of a sign proclaiming 146 days of work at the plant without an injury.
Workers arriving for the 4 a.m. shift entered the plant on time, except for crews assigned to Unit 10, where the blast occurred.
Timet makes titanium used in golf clubs, aircraft and hip joints. Aerospace and aircraft gets the largest share of the titanium, Peterson said. With 650 employees, the plant is the largest industrial employer in Southern Nevada, he said.
Timet has had a history of accidents, explosions, fires and spills in more than 48 years at the Basic Industrial Management Inc. complex.
In 1997 state and county officials investigated multiple accidents at the plant, including an explosion that injured two workers.
The Clark County Health District monitored releases of magnesium, toxic chlorine gas and toxic titanium tetrachloride at least eight times in the same year. The Nevada Legislature has added titanium tetrachloride to the state's highly hazardous substances list.
In 1996, Timet agreed to pay $125,265 in fines for numerous safety violations, including one that contributed to a worker's death in January 1995.
The state had cited the plant for up to 90 serious violations, including the death of Douglas Sloan, 45, a 16-year veteran foreman who was overcome by toxic argon gas. Sloan had climbed into the bottom of a tank containing argon to retrieve a tool.
Timet is about three miles east of the former Pacific Engineering & Production Company, one of two manufacturers of ammonium perchlorate used to boost solid rocket fuel performance. PEPCON's plant, now American Pacific Corp., was destroyed in fiery explosions on May 4, 1988. The operation moved to Cedar City, Utah, the next year.