A petroleum-fueled blaze burned for three hours after an explosion at a gas station in St. Augustine late Friday afternoon. The station and surrounding buildings were gutted, neighbors were displaced for hours and traffic remained diverted around the scene at 11 p.m.
Authorities said a fuel was being delivered at the gas station when the explosion occurred at the BP station on state Road 16 at Masters Drive just before 5 p.m.
"They had these couple-thousand gallon tanks that were actually on the side, kind of a substation of the gas station," witness Brian High said. "A fuel truck was over there, and the whole thing exploded."
Officials confirmed that the one person who was injured in the initial blast was dragged away from the flames by several people, including an off-duty Jacksonville firefighter. Saturday, authorities identified the victim as the truck driver, 61-year-old David Hunt Cowles of Fort McCoy, Fla.
Cowles was airlifted to Shands Jacksonville Medical Center in serious condition, then transferred to the burn unit at Shands in Gainesville. Saturday afternoon, nurses said he was in good condition.
Residents told Channel 4 that an explosion could be heard 5 miles from the gas station. Black smoke from the blaze not far from the St. Augustine Airport and was visible from Clay County, 25 miles to the west.
"The fire spread rapidly to the buildings that were on that site," St. Johns County fire spokesman Jeremy Robshaw said. "We have a large petroleum fire of some sort -- some type of flammable liquid is burning."
The Sheriff's Office initially asked residents within one-half mile of the fire to leave the area for their own safety, but that was lifted about 45 minutes later. People like Trae Wolfe, who live or work in the immediate area, were not allowed to return the rest of the night.
"It literally shook the building," Wolfe said of the explosion. "We have a concrete block, two-story building. It shook the building with a big boom and a huge fireball."
Power was knocked out to about 2,000 homes and businesses. All but a few had power back on by 11 p.m.
St. Johns County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Chuck Mulligan said the fire was contained to the property of the gas station, but several buildings were heavily damaged, possibly destroyed.
Robshaw said there would be an extensive investigation into the cause of the fire by local, state and federal agencies. The results might not be available for several days.