Residents of this wine country town returned home Saturday only a few hours after being jolted awake and forced from their houses by a series of fiery explosions at a propane company.
Fragments of exploded metal tanks flew hundreds of feet and flames shot high into the early morning sky. But only one person was hurt and no buildings burned.
Firefighters said the whole town of 3,200 could have been leveled if a 30,000-gallon propane tank exploded--as they feared could happen.
"Had the big one gone off, the town of Yountville as we know it wouldn't be," said Wilbert Horne, a station chief for the Napa County Fire Department.
The blasts occurred about 6 a.m. at Suburban Propane Co. in the middle of the town, which is 45 miles north of San Francisco. The propane somehow ignited as fuel was being transferred from a 3,000-gallon tanker truck to a smaller, portable tank, said Napa County Supervisor Fred Negri. The first explosion set off about a dozen more 40-gallon aluminum tanks intended for hot air balloons, firefighters said. The 3,000-gallon tanker caught fire but vented, relieving pressure and averting a larger blast.
"The first sounds were a series of muffled-sounding explosions," said Yountville Mayor Carlee Leftwich, who lives only a block from the propane company.
"Then it was quiet for a little bit, then there were six to 10 very large explosions with the sky totally lighted up," she said.
Firefighters at a station two blocks away also were awakened by the blasts and saw the fire. Fearing a 30,000-gallon propane tank only a few feet from the blaze might ignite and explode, they immediately began evacuations.
"We just kept banging on doors, and they were moving fast to get out of here," said Capt. Tom Stevenson of the Napa County Fire Department. About half of the town's residents were evacuated.