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Mayday at Black Dog: Fire fighters recount power plant explosion 2012

April 17, 2012 Burnsville Patch.

By Clare Kennedy, Patch Staff

Sept. 21, 2010 will be remembered as a close call for the Burnsville Fire Department. That day four firefighters were literally baptized in flame — and lived to tell the tale.

"I sometimes wonder why we're alive, to this day," said Capt. Bill Schaetzel, who has spent 23 years with the BFD.

He can still remember the exact time the call came in — 7:29 a.m. A coal fire at Xcel's Black Dog Power Plant.

Calls from the power plant are unusual.

"They usually handle their own situations," said Steve Boardman, a fire motor operator and paramedic who has been with the BFD for 11 years. "If we get a call it heightens our concern. They don't do that very often."

Capt. Joel Clasen's team arrived on the scene and sent in Firefighter Shawn Hill, who was one of the first inside the plant. The team found lethal levels of carbon monoxide in the air inside the plant and immediately evacuated the employees. With an infrared camera, they found a growing heat spot in the middle of a coal bunker — a huge internal silo 70 feet high and 40 feet wide.

Schaetzel, Boardman and Firefighters Tom Hale and Matt Ostendorf followed Hill in. Burdened with air packs, hoses and monitoring equipment, the four of them hurried through . Their objective was to do reconnaissance and report back. They ended up on a sixth floor catwalk adjacent to the bunker. The fire was burning in the center, which meant that a cavity was developing inside the pile of coal. If it collapsed it would send up a cloud of super-combustible dust that could envelop all nearby. The dust could explode or ignite at any moment with just a single spark from an incoming rail car.

Within minutes, Boardman and Ostendorf noticed a frightening change. The smoke from below was pouring out faster, with more pressure behind it.

"That was about all the warning we had," Boardman said.

There was a terrible sound — like the roar of a jet engine — and then the explosion was upon them. Schaetzel only had time to turn his head before the firefighters were blown right off their feet, flying two to four feet in the air, and crushed against the catwalk railings. Hale was tossed down a steel stairway.

Andy Hamlin, part of the rapid intervention team tasked with rescues, was outside when the deafening blast sounded.

"We looked up and saw smoke flying out of the north side, the windows blasted out. The Xcel employees all ran to the far end of the parking lot," Hamlin recalled. "That's not good at all when you see that. Those guys know that place inside and out."

Hamlin began preparing for the worst. He didn't know if he would find his colleagues alive or dead. Then a call came through from the plant's ravaged, smoking interior — "Mayday."

The call came from Hill, who was working several levels below Schaetzel's crew. He saw the fireball raging up toward his colleagues. Hill scaled the catwalk, and found the four enveloped in blanket of haze and soot, but conscious and mostly unscathed, though Hale sustained an injury to his knee that later required surgery. The five of them made a hasty exit.

It took the BFD and partner agencies 10 grueling hours to put out the fire, which had spread from the bunker to the roof. Once the smoke cleared, the BFD assessed the wreckage. The explosion tore apart Black Dog's west wall and caused extensive damage inside. A coal conveyor belt that weighed well over a ton was lifted off the ground, completely stripping the bolts that held it fast in a bed of solid concrete.

In retrospect, Hill, Schaetzel and Boardman find their survival almost miraculous. They could have easily been blown off the catwalk to their deaths. If they'd been any closer to the source of the explosion — which was behind a nearby wall — they most likely would not have made it.

"I'm surprised that we were right there and we all walked away from it," Hill said. "No one got critically injured. That's got to be rare."

However, all involved tend to be reticent about their experience.

"It's hard for us to talk about how dangerous our jobs are," Boardman said. "It was pretty scary. We're very lucky."

"The bottom line is that the five of us walked out together," Schaetzel added.

Though many in the department find it hard to talk about, Boardman said he felt it was important for the people of Burnsville to hear. The city council agreed. On April 3, the BFD honored those who put their lives on the line to contain the Black Dog fire.

"This situation easily could have been lethal. The actions performed by the crew recognized tonight undoubtedly saved lives from being lost and further injuries from occurring," said Fire Chief BJ Jungmann. "It takes a long time for them to physically and mentally recover from something like that. As much as fire fighters might not want to believe they are human, these situations remind us how important our commitment is to the community."

Jungmann presented the Bar of Meritorious Action to Capt. Paul Young, Jeff Gutzwiller, Scott Hanlon, Kully Hauser, Capt. Terry Ritchie, Mike Andrews, Assistant Fire Chief Brian Carlson, Kyle Engen, Tim Finley, Jamie Gerard, Dan Hale, Andy Hamlin, Mike Klarich, Chris Knettel, Jayson Knutson, Andy Leach, Ryan Paradowski, and Inspector Jan Trom.

Capt. Joel Clasen was awarded the department's Award of Merit.

The four caught in the explosion were given the Medal of Valor and Hill received the highest recognition, Medal of Honor, for helping his colleagues navigate out of a perilous situation.

"Without him there could have been injury and death. He showed composure and great courage under adverse conditions that saved many lives and prevented further injury that day," Jungmann said.

When asked about the award, Hill replied that what he did is a part of the job and that his colleagues would have done the same for him.

"We were pretty close before and that hasn't changed," Hill said. "It begins as a brotherhood and it ends as a brotherhood."

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