Public safety — One employee of Ernst Irrigation sustains serious but not life-threatening injuries in blast; transported to OHSU in Portland

ST. PAUL — An unidentified employee of Ernst Irrigation, a hardware and agricultural service and supply company in downtown St. Paul, was seriously injured Thursday afternoon when a half-full, 250-gallon waste oil tank he was welding exploded.

St. Paul Fire District Chief Bryan Lee said Friday the cause of the blast is unclear.

“There may have been some sort of vapor in the space between the oil and the tank that was more volatile than just oil,” Lee said. “Oil is not going to ignite that way.”

Lee said he could not comment in detail as to the nature of the employee’s injuries, but he did say they were primarily percussive rather than heat-related. The victim sustained minor burns, he said.

He described the injuries as “serious, but not life-threatening,” and said the man is expected to make a full recovery.

“In all honesty, he’s very lucky to walk away from this,” he said. “The pressure ripped that tank open.”

A Life Flight helicopter was called, but Lee said he determined it would be faster to transport the victim via ambulance to the Oregon Health and Sciences University Hospital in Portland.

The incident was reported around 2:30 p.m. Thursday, and a total of 18 firefighters, including Lee, responded to the scene. The chief said that other Ernst employees reacted quickly to the incident and had extinguished the blaze before firefighters arrived.

“They did a very good job,” he said.

The explosion occurred in an adjacent workshop operated by Ernst and did not affect the main store, located at 20179 Main St N.E., which was open to the public as usual Friday.

Lee said the damage to the shop building appeared to be minimal — less than $1,000. He said he expects the incident will be investigated by the company’s insurance provider and by the Oregon Occu­pa­tional Safety and Health Administration.

Reached Friday afternoon, Ernst General Manager Patrick Dolan declined comment on the matter, and said he would not release the victim’s name out of respect for his and his family’s privacy.

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