Black smoke and pillars of fire tore through the night’s sky Saturday as fuel tanks exploded at the Gasworks service station in Bovoni in a blast one witness described as looking "like an atomic bomb."
Officials Saturday night reported only one injury from the fire, and another person was injured while climbing a fence in an effort to escape. Motorists were advised by emergency officials to avoid the area.
The first report of a fire in Bovoni was received at the 911 emergency call center at about 8:30 p.m.
Joyce Doumeng was in her home, about three quarters of a mile from the station, talking on the phone to a friend in Florida when she heard the first blast. She went outside and looked east and saw flames leaping from the station.
"It looked like when you see film of a plane crash," she said. "Repeatedly, as each tank went up, it just filled the sky with black smoke and fresh flames."
Doumeng spoke to the Source about 45 minutes after the first explosion, and said by that time the explosions had ceased but the fire was still burning.
"It looks like an atomic bomb, just a huge plume of black smoke."
She said because there were little or no winds, the smoke was going straight up.
Even as she spoke to the Source, she said the smoke was thinning somewhat, and she was able to see lights from St. John through the black cloud.
According to Christine Lett, public information officer for the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Authority, it appeared that gas tanks stored behind the station had exploded.
"The explosion was in their storage facility," she said. "It was fuel – gasoline, not propane," that was being stored.
VI Fire Service firefighters and the VI Port Authority’s crash unit responded to battle the blaze. At approximately 9:15 p.m., VI Police Department officers began asking residents of lower Bovoni (across from the Gas Works Gas Station) to evacuate the area.
VITEMA Director Elton Lewis also partially activated St. Thomas’ Emergency Operations Center to coordinate and support the response to the fire and Department of Health officials remained on standby to issues health advisories if necessary. The Department of Planning and Natural Resources and VI Rescue also responded to the incident.
At about 9:30 p.m. VITEMA issued a call for all water truck companies to call the 911 call center. Lett said the fire fighters had not run out of water, but officials want to make sure they had sufficient supplies.
Firefighters contained the blaze just after 11 p.m. and the VI Fire Service issued an ‘all-clear’ at 11:25 p.m. allowing residents of lower Bovoni to return home.
Governor’s Office spokesman Jean Greaux said the fire was concentrated behind the store and the store was completely engulfed in flames.
An individual who was at the gas station at the time of the explosion, received burns to 18 percent of his body and was transported to Schneider Hospital for treatment, according to VITEMA.
The Gasworks is owned by Jose Lima, who was featured in a July business story in the Source. Lima was named 2013 St. Thomas Entrepreneur of the Year. (See related link below.)
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional information released by VITEMA.