NAPLES — Working behind the Mangrove Cafe on Monday morning, Donny Kingston thought he had stumbled upon a septic leak.
He didn’t notice the writing on the large truck nearby — Bal Gas Propane.
Moments later, a large explosion rocked Fifth Avenue South, engulfing the Mangrove Cafe in a flash flame, blowing out windows, detaching the restaurant’s roof and sending three people — 32-year-old Kingston, 41-year-old Bal Gas employee Tom Smith, and 51-year-old Mangrove Cafe cook William “Billy” McCauley — to the hospital.
Kingston, who cleans beer tap lines as a subcontractor for Tap Technology Inc. out of Tampa, said he was only about 10 feet from the source.
“I got burned pretty much everywhere I didn’t have clothes — from my knees down to my ankles, from my elbows to my hands,” said Kingston, who was transported to the Tampa Bay Regional Burn Center via air ambulance. “It singed the hair of my goatee and my eyelashes.”
Surveillance video from Fifth Avenue South released Tuesday shows the large fireball that engulfed the restaurant around 9:15 a.m. Fire officials believe the fire and subsequent explosion ignited from a propane leak next to Kingston’s running car.
“Basically, what you see happen is the entire back of the building lights up and you see a fireball that shoots up two, perhaps three stories above the single-story Mangrove Cafe,” Naples Fire Chief Steve McInerny said. “There was a lot of fire back there.”
The fireball was followed by a loud explosion that shook nearby buildings. A school bus drove in front of the Mangrove Cafe just minutes before the explosion, the video shows.
“That really could have been tragic,” McInerny said. “When you look at it, there’s a lot of, wow, this was really, really close.”
When reached in his hospital room Tuesday, Kingston was doing physical therapy — something he’ll be doing a lot of for at least a week in the hospital. He’s also facing the possibility of skin grafts. He was officially listed in fair condition on Tuesday.
“(Monday) night they gave me a bath and they scrubbed off all the burnt skin, which I thought was the most painful thing in my life, until (Tuesday) morning when they woke me up and gave me a shower,” Kingston said.
Kingston, who is the father of a 9-year-old son, does not have health insurance, said his girlfriend, April Bucher. She is hoping to establish a fund in the coming days so people can help him pay medical bills.
Jack Tew, the CEO of Tap Tech, described Kingston as a “great young man,” who is “hard working, reliable and dependable.” Although Kingston is a subcontractor and not an employee, Tew said his company would help him out.
“He’s part of our family,” Tew said. “Of course we will.”
Smith, of Bal Gas, was the most seriously injured of the three, and remained in critical condition on Tuesday, also at the Tampa burn center. He was standing over the gas line when the explosion occurred, Kingston said.
Smith has a middle school-aged son who attends The Village School of Naples. The school requested that people pray for Smith on Tuesday.
“Tom is a wonderful person,” Bal Gas District Manager Sharon Jacobs said. “He’s a long-term employee, and we just want everybody to pray for his recovery.”
Jacobs is also considering establishing a fund to benefit Smith.
McCauley, who has been a cook at the Mangove Cafe for 14 years, was transported to NCH Downtown Naples Hospital on Monday morning. His wife, Rosey McCauley, said her husband had burns on his back, on his head and on his arms.
He was going through tests on Tuesday morning, and it is unclear how long he will remain in the hospital.
“He’s doing all right,” Rosey McCauley said. “He’s doing a lot better than the other guys.”
William McCauley has a clear recollection of what happened and is doing well, said Doug Amaral, the owner of the Mangrove Cafe.
“I went to the hospital and spoke to him. He’s in good spirits,” Amaral said. “He’s doing fantastic. Obviously, our prayers are with the gentleman from Bal Gas.”
Meredith Sawyer, 42, should have been cleaning in the Mangrove Cafe dining room at the time of the explosion. Luckily for Sawyer, a self-employed cleaner who works at the restaurant every morning, she was answering a phone call in a back room when the explosion occurred.
As she was walking back out into the restaurant, Sawyer said she saw a flash, heard a “whoomp,” and then saw the tiles falling from the ceiling. She ran from the restaurant unharmed.
“I would have been dead if I had not answered the phone,” Sawyer said. “There’s no doubt about it. The wall would have collapsed on me.”
“I feel extremely blessed right now,” she added. “It was definitely a religious experience, hugging my kids and my husband.”
Connect with Ryan Mills at www.naplesnews.com/staff/ryan-mills/