Santee, NE Propane Gas Explosion, Aug 1983


Santee, Neb. (AP) -- Eight children playing in a cloud of leaking propane gas were engulfed in an orange fireball when the vapors ignited, triggering a blaze that burned for eight hours and forced the evacuation of this Indian reservation community.
Ten people were hurt, including a propane truck driver and a woman who lived in a mobile home about 25 feet from the storage tank.
"I heard the explosion and I could see the flames over the rooftops," said Robert Brown, 19, who lives about 50 yards from the scene of Friday afternoon's blast. "And all the children were running around on fire."
The eight children, who ranged in age from 4 to 15, remained hospitalized Saturday with burns. All 400 residents of this town on the Santee Sioux Indian reservation were forced to flee after the 4:30 p.m. explosion, and they returned about seven hours later.
The propane leaked as a tanker truck driver, Sam Ruiter, was filling a 10,000-gallon underground storage tank for Santee's public school system, sand Tribal Chairman Rick Kitto, who witnessed the explosion.
He said a crowd of children had gathered as a cloud of vapor formed, about 20 feet high and 50 feet around.
"It was a very hot day, and the gas may have felt cool to their skin," Kitto said, adding that Ruiter had been trying to shoo the children away.
Suddenly the gas ignited, engulfing Ruiter and the children in an orange fireball 50 feet in diameter, Kitto said. The truck was quickly backed away by members of the community's fire department, but the 6,000 gallons of propane remaining in the underground tank kept burning, shooting flames 40 to 60 feet in the air.
The children ran in the direction of the fire department, where workers grabbed hoses and sprayed them with water to douse their burning clothes.
The children were taken to St. Luke's Burn Center in Sioux City, Iowa. Two were in critical condition, one serious, three fair, and two in good condition. A nursing supervisor said all suffered burns on their upper bodies, arms and hands.
Jan Feidler, who lives in a mobile home about 25 feet away, suffered minor injuries while trying to escape. Her home's vinyl siding was melted by heat from the flames.
Ruiter was listed in good condition in Sacred Heart Hospital at Yankton, S.D. He refused to speak to reporters Saturday.
Deputy state Fire Marshal Jim Holselaw was examining the remains of the storage tank Saturday. He said no cause had been determined but authorities presumed a spark ignited the gas.

Syracuse Herald-American New York 1983-08-28