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Witness to fatal explosion was left wondering

The remains of a propane truck are seen Nov. 23, 2008, near Highway 71 in Olivia after the truck exploded, killing the driver. The State Patrol said the tractor trailer apparently rolled over as it turned from U.S. Highway 212 to go north on U.S. Highway 71. The truck then caught fire and exploded. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

OLIVIA -- A waitress saw it first, and when Paul Ager looked out the window of his Chatterbox Cafe and Truck Stop in Olivia all he could see was heavy, black smoke and flames.

He hopped into his vehicle and drove toward the intersection of U.S. Highway 212 and Minnesota Highway 71 on the west side of town, convinced that a building must be in flames. Instead, it was an International truck and the propane tanker it had been pulling.

"It was lit up like a Christmas tree,'' said Paul Ager of the burning tanker that was on the verge of exploding. He heard popping noises -- most likely tires exploding -- and quickly drove back to the cafe.

Ager was one of the few witnesses to the propane tanker explosion that claimed the life of driver Brad M. Ripley, 44, of Mankato on Nov. 24, 2008.

Ever since, he has been wondering: Had Ripley known his rig was on fire and attempted to drive the tanker away from town before he lost his life that early Sunday morning?

Ager said a customer told him that he believed Ripley had made a phone call to a family member stating his rig was on fire and that he was going to get it out of town.

And, Ager said the truck and tanker rig that he saw engulfed in flames appeared to be upright on all of its 18 wheels when he drove near the scene to see what was burning. "On all of its wheels,'' he said to emphasize the point.

Minnesota State Trooper Brad Messer investigated those very possibilities after another trooper relayed what Ager believed may have happened.

The trooper said we may never know exactly what caused the accident, but the physical evidence shows that the trailer had tipped over and that Ripley had not made a phone call to say the tanker was on fire.

Trooper Messer- who spoke with the driver's family- said the victim's cell phone was recovered after the explosion. It was not turned on. Phone records show it had not been used for two days.

While the tanker may have looked like it was upright, Trooper Messer said physical evidence at the scene does not support that conclusion. There were visible tears and marks on both the tanker and road pavement that are consistent with a tanker that has tipped over.

Also, the rims from the tires left impressions in the pavement from the force of the explosion, and those marks also show the rig was not upright.

The investigating trooper was able to contact eight people who had happened by the scene and saw the fire, but none of them had taken a photo that would show the tanker before it exploded.

Trooper Messer said the explosion on an early Sunday morning meant there were few witnesses, but it was also fortunate. Had there been the volume of traffic that is common at other times, there may have been other victims of the explosion. He said it is very fortunate that the blast happened shortly before police and other responders reached the scene.

They would almost certainly have been in harm's way as they would have attempted to keep traffic from the area.

The tanker carried 9,499 gallons of propane. An investigation by a state fire marshal indicated that it burned for at least 20 minutes before the heat reached the intensity to trigger the explosion.

Ager said he was working inside the café when a waitress noticed the smoke and fire and shouted to him. He looked out of the window towards the intersection. There was so much smoke and fire that it was difficult to know what was going on, he said. He said he suspected the Sunrise Packaging building near the intersection was burning.

The café is located several hundred yards from the scene of the explosion, and fortunately so. When the tanker exploded, the café building shook.

"It was like a bomb,'' he said.

The investigation into the accident indicates that the tanker may have been going too fast as it made the turn north from Highway 212 to 71. The tanker had no baffles in it, and the inertia of the large volume of liquid it held may have caused it to over-turn as the turn was being made, according to the accident investigation.

Messer said it is possible that something else could have caused the tanker to tip over, such as a tire blowing out as the rig turned at the intersection. The explosion caused so much damage it is not possible to know exactly what happened.

The trooper has forwarded information about the accident to the National Transportation Safety Board.