Fire officials say a recycling expansion tank on a tower exploded at Mesa Oil, located in the Rio Grande Industrial Park, at about 12:07 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 18.

Belen Fire Chief Nicholas Moya said a preliminary examination of the scene indicates the 50-gallon tank was “over-pressurized” and exploded. Debris and the tank fell to the ground below.

Firefighters extinguish flames on a tower Thursday at Mesa Oil in the Rio Grande Industrial Park, south of Rio Communities. (Mike Powers | News-Bulletin photos)

The tank hit one person, who sustained injuries but was alert and conscious. Another person had minor burns. Both were transported to an Albuquerque hospital.

Moya said there were four small fires on different levels of the tower before firefighters were able to take control. New Mexico State Police and environmental personnel were called to evaluate the situation. Moya said employees with a company other than Mesa Oil operate the tower.

On Tuesday, Rio Communities Fire Chief Andrew Tabet said the cause of the explosion and fire is still under investigation. The incident happened on a tower owned by Mesa Oil Waste, a subsidiary of Mesa Oil, which operates on the parent company’s property in the industrial park.

“The owner has hired an independent investigator to look into the incident,” Tabet said. “The investigation is a combination of the department and the investigator. We put together our preliminary investigation, outlining what we think happened and caused it and they hire a company for insurance purposes to do further investigation.”

The chief said last he heard the two employees injured in the blast were both in stable condition.

Belen Fire Chief Nicholas Moya said a preliminary examination of the scene indicates the 50 gallon tank was “over pressurized” and exploded.

“We are eager to work with the company to better educate them on fire behavior,” Tabet said, adding the investigation should be concluded by the end of this week.

Fire crews from several local departments remained on the property Thursday afternoon to assess the situation.

It happened fast and was like something out of a movie.

That’s how Cynthia Chavez, the production manager for Clariant Cargo and Device Protection, described the explosion at neighboring Mesa Oil last Thursday afternoon.

“We were outside (on a break) and there was a loud boom. I looked up and there was (a structure at Mesa Oil) engulfed in flames. Just a big fireball,” Chavez said. “It looked like something you would see in a movie. I could feel the heat on my face. It was huge.”

Rio Communities Fire Chief Andrew Tabet walks among the debris from an explosion at Mesa Oil.

Clariant is immediately west of the Mesa Oil facility on N.M. 304, south of the city of Rio Communities.

Unsure of what was happening exactly, Chavez ran into the Clariant building to begin evacuating employees while her coworker called 911. She said people inside the building were already running out as she entered.

“They didn’t know what was going on. Some people said it shook the whole building. They thought something was coming down on top of it,” Chavez said. “I was worried someone died. I’m so glad everyone is OK.”

Jim O’Hara, the safety and environmental officer for Airnov Healthcare Packaging, was leaving the company’s facility that is south of Mesa Oil when something shook the building.

“We have a loading dock and sometimes a truck will kind of rattle the building but this was much larger,” O’Hara said. “I heard the explosion and saw the fireball and flames go a couple hundred feet in the air.”

He immediately began evacuations, which worked exactly as planned, O’Hara said, and resulted in no injuries to any Airnov employees. He said the debris from the explosion did come through the building’s roof, causing minor damage.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.

Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.