Federal, state and local authorities are trying to determine what caused a central Florida water tank to burst, unleashing a wall of water on an adjacent pump house and killing two men who had been working inside.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the Highland County Sheriff's Office are probing the accident, which tore apart the 300,000-gallon tank.
The water collapsed the 1,200-square-foot concrete block building onto two men who had been fixing a pump; they were pronounced dead at the scene.
Officials identified the victims as Jon Martinez and Jason Steele, “valued employees” of Tampa-based United Fire Protection, the company said.
The accident happened about 2 p.m. Thursday (April 7) at the site of a former Georgia Pacific plant, said sheriff's spokeswoman Nell Hays. One witness said the tank was “badly mangled.”
United Fire President Chad Norris called the accident “a terrible tragedy.” His company said in a brief statement that it was “deeply saddened” by the deaths and was cooperating with investigators.
The water also knocked over a diesel tank on the site, spilling between 100 and 200 gallons of fuel, said Teresa Zilko-Miller, DEP's emergency response specialist.
Fire Suppression Pumps
Highlands County Fire Operations Supervisor Jimmy Branca told reporters that the pump that Martinez and Steele had been repairing was one of two designed to pull water from the tank for fire suppression systems at the 200,000-square-foot former plant.
James Harris, Highlands County Fire Services supervisor, told the Tampa Tribune that the pump house had been vacant for a while.
"Before it could be leased, the fire protection system had to be checked out," Harris said. "They needed to replace the pump."
Inspection records on the tank are with Georgia Pacific, Harris said.
According to Highlands Today, the site has been owned since October by developer Leo Bruso, who owns Land & Commercial Inc. of Upper Marlboro, MD. Bruso did not respond Monday (April 11) to requests for comment.