878 5th Avenue South, Naples, FL
NAPLES — A propane leak next to a running car proved to be an explosive combination Monday morning, sparking a flash fire that enveloped a Naples restaurant, knocking down walls, blowing out windows and sending three people to the hospital with serious burns.
“This is really a bomb that went off,” Naples Fire Chief Steve McInerny said after an initial assessment of the damage.
Some people working near the Four Corners section of Fifth Avenue South said they initially thought the explosion, which shook nearby buildings, was an earthquake.
The explosion ignited around 9:15 a.m. behind the Mangrove Cafe, 878 Fifth Avenue South.
Tom Smith, 41, an employee of Naples-based Bal Gas Propane, was delivering propane to a 500-gallon, underground tank behind the restaurant, McInerny said. At the same time, Donald Kingston, 32, a beer distributor, had left his 2007 Nissan Versa running in the parking lot, just a few feet from where the propane was being pumped.
McInerny said gas leaked from the tank, and seeped into the restaurant via an open door.
“In this particular case, the perfect storm of conditions came together,” McInerny said in an e-mail. “We have the delivery of propane next to a running vehicle, low humidity, a propane leak and wind out of the southwest.”
Jim Thompson, 53, of Golden Gate, was doing business at the UPS store behind the restaurant, when he noticed a cloud of white smoke or steam, which McInerny said is a sign of a propane leak. Thompson then saw flames, and heard the explosion.
“It was a big ‘woof,’” Thompson said. “It almost knocked me off my feet.”
The explosion and flash fire charred much of the Mangrove Cafe’s kitchen, knocked down walls inside the business, ripped a door off of a walk-in freezer, blew glass from the front windows into Fifth Avenue South, and disconnected the roof from the walls.
“I saw the glass on the ground, smoke, and a man running toward me screaming ‘Call 911. Call 911. I’m hurt. I’m burned,’” said Sandie Mathias, 54, an office manager at a real estate business a few doors down from the Mangrove Cafe.
Smith and Kingston were sent to the Tampa Bay Regional Burn Center via air ambulance. Smith remained in critical condition around 4:15 p.m., while Kingston was in fair condition.
William “Billy” McCauley, 51, a chef at the Mangrove Cafe, was sent to NCH Downtown Naples hospitals with less serious burns, officials said. McCauley has been something of a father figure to Angel Pena, 25, who is a cook at the restaurant.
“It’s scary,” said Pena, who was scheduled to work at 10 a.m. “You don’t know. You’re cooking, you have a passion for cooking, and all of a sudden it explodes. That’s not right.”
McCauley’s wife, Rosey, answered the phone in his hospital room Monday afternoon.
“He’s doing OK,” she said.
Two Naples police officers were also transported to NCH Downtown for smoke inhalation, Naples Police Chief Tom Weschler said. Police roped off a section of road between U.S. 41 and Eighth Street South into Monday afternoon.
Doug Amaral, the owner of the Mangrove Cafe, started working at the restaurant in 1990 upon moving to Florida. He said he bought the business a little over a year later, and grew it. He said he was in shock on Monday afternoon.
“It’s devastating,” Amaral said. “The irony is, my restaurants in Punta Gorda got blown away by (Hurricane) Charley. This is not my first disaster.”
The Mangrove Cafe is one of the oldest restaurants on Fifth Avenue South. Fire officials said they suspected the building was a complete loss. But when asked if he planned to re-open the restaurant after it has been repaired, Amaral said, “without question.”
Several Mangrove Cafe employees gathered across the street as Naples police and fire officials worked.
“I haven’t gotten to talk to most of them,” Amaral said of his employees. “My suggestion is to go to the unemployment office.”
A woman who answered the phone at Bal Gas Propane office in Naples declined comment.
Monday’s explosion was similar to a propane explosion outside the old Dixie Moon Cafe in Bonita Springs in 2007. That explosion ignited as a distributor refueled gas tanks behind the restaurant. One person was severely burned in the Dixie Moon explosion.
Although three people were badly burned in Monday morning’s explosion, police and fire officials said it could have been much worse had more people been in the area.
“If somebody had been walking in front of there, it would have been ugly,” Weschler said.
Propane can be delivered at any time, McInerny said, adding that Monday’s explosion could have been deadly had it occurred during lunch or dinner.
“I think we would have had the potential for a serious loss of life,” he said. “Just alone, the glass could have cut people down. The three people involved are very, very lucky to be alive.”
Connect with Ryan Mills at www.naplesnews.com/staff/ryan-mills/