Truck driver injured in explosion outside Santa Rosa hospital

The truck driver injured in a Santa Rosa hospital explosion Wednesday suffered "significant Injuries" but has been able to assist investigators. 

Santa Rosa Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal says it's also fortunate that the truck owner, Matheson Tri-Gas, is located near the incident and was able to send a team to assist quickly. 

For several hours, the hazardous materials incident forced the closure of Highway 101 in both directions at the north end of the city, plus the evacuation of two Kaiser Permanente medical office buildings on Old Redwood Highway.   

"We just heard a big boom, " ophthalmic technician Lisa Crua told KTVU, "and It felt like the floor rose up, so it was pretty big, and we felt the whole building shake."  

Patients were startled, and procedures halted, in offices that include pediatrics, labs, imaging and outpatient surgery.

What everyone heard was an explosion at a loading dock behind Building 5, as a tanker tried to off-load refrigerated liquid oxygen.

The liquid, at warmer temperatures, converts to a medicinal gas that is used therapeutically for patients, particularly to help with respiration. 

But during the transfer of the product from the truck to a storage tank, something went wrong.   
"The concern was what was leaking, how fast it was leaking and what that could potentially lead to," said Lowenthal. 

To the west of the buildings, lie the freeway, and the leaking material posed danger for drivers, should the oxygen spark.       

"Well it's usually fairly stable unless it gets to an area where it can ignite," explained Santa Rosa Fire Battalion Chief Jason Jenkins, who was the incident commander on the scene.

"Worse case scenario, that truck could catch fire and do that, so we created an isolation zone of 300 feet all around it," said Jenkins. 

For almost two hours, Santa Rosans sat in miles of stopped traffic, or ditched the freeway for jammed side streets. 

"This incident immediately caused the shutdown of Highway 101," explained Lowenthal, "so we had hundreds and hundreds of vehicles locked in the closures and backed up in both directions." 

As teams determined the best course of action, as many as 200 employees and patients were evacuated from the medical buildings.

"At one point, we had to go back inside to do a sweep of the areas to make sure everyone had left," said Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Jeneane Kucker.

In shuttles and ambulances, everyone moved to Kaiser's main hospital a mile away. 
It was all very abrupt, and for some, reminiscent of Kaiser's evacuation during October's firestorm. 

"We're battle tough and tested," said Crua wryly, "but that feeling of being displaced, not knowing what's going on, it's emotional, very emotional."  

Finally, a hazardous materials crew managed to shut off the valves at the truck and the tank, although a small amount of off-gassing continued.  

Investigators were examining the truck and hoses, plus debris scattered through the loading zone, to document and determine what happened. 

The driver was outside the truck cab at the time of the blast. 
He was making his last stop of the day, and the 45,000 gallon capacity tanker was almost empty, with about 1500 gallons on board.     

"This all kind-of brings back bad memories, " MRI technologist Holly Enzler told KTVU.
Enzler was among the employees who walked from the Bicentennial way campus back to work to retrieve her car, once the emergency ended. 

"We are disaster prepared around here," smiled Enzler, "so bring it on, we're disaster prepared." 
Thursday, Kaiser will reopen Medical Building 4, but Building 5 will remain closed as damage is evaluated, so some patient appointments will need to be  rescheduled.