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Ripon firms safety effort avoided fiery explosion
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Rick Van Unen wants to clear the air.

The owner of Van Unen Miersma Propane, the site of Wednesday’s four-hour standoff between police and a gunman, believes the stories of an exploding tank have been grossly exaggerated.

There was fire, to be sure, but no tank exploded.

“Get hit by a propane truck, now there’s a story,” Van Unen said on Friday.

The propane yard at the southwest corner of the Austin Road and Highway 99 interchange became the backdrop for a lengthy standoff that resulted in freeway and railroad closures, reports of gun fire and eventually the arrest of Manteca resident Jason Stowers, 32.

The drama, as it was played out on television and the Internet, was spiked by the involvement of an industrial-sized propane tank and transport truck.

“You could see it all over Facebook,” Van Unen said. “You’ve got people in Modesto wondering if their families are going to be OK.”

Van Unen confirms there was a fire when Stowers crashed into a re-sale tank on the property. That particular tank is used to fill smaller propane tanks for barbecues and such.

The tank was knocked off its cement base and turned over, disconnecting a hose and vapor line. The gas in those lines ignited, Van Unen said, creating the 25- to 30-foot flame that triggered a wave of emergency phone calls from witnesses.

About three galloons of propane burned.

A tank did not explode, Van Unen reiterated.

There are longstanding, industry-wide safety measures in place to ensure the safety of employees and customers, he said.

The tanks are fashioned with an automatic shut-off. It’s an intuitive feature, Van Unen says. The excess flow valve is triggered when the tank believes there’s been a rupture or it has released too much fuel.

“If you start running too much fuel, it thinks the hose has been ruptured and it shuts down,” Van Unen said.

He even believes a propane tank of that size – with rounded steel as thick as 9/16 of an inch – could withstand a stray bullet.

“I’m no ballistics expert, but I’d say no. Those tanks have 9/16 steel and they’re rounded,” Van Unen said. “A direct hit will glance off a rounded surface. It’s not like shooting a straight wall.

“I’m not saying it could happen, but I think it would be pretty unlikely. … (Police) aren’t using armor-piercing bullets.”

A safety measure even prevented Stower’s from fleeing the scene on Wednesday.

The transport truck he hijacked was unloading propane into a bulk tank.

When the truck’s hose is connected to a tank, Van Unen said, the brakes on the truck automatically lock.

Stowers was stuck, no matter how long or hard he rode the throttle.

“He spun his tires but couldn’t go anywhere,” Van Unen said. “He just sat there with his foot on the throttle, grinding the tires into the ground.”

Business resumed Thursday at Van Unen Miersma Propane, celebrating its 20th year at the property that fronts Moffat Boulevard.

A new re-sale tank was installed on Thursday at a cost of $2,500 and only a few hours of the work day were suspended by the police department’s early morning investigation. The tires on the transporter truck were also replaced.

 “The part we’re proud of is that we want to have a safe propane environment – and we do,” Van Unen said. “(The safety measures) worked.”