Seven injured, two seriously, in explosion at rail car repair facility near Atchison

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ATCHISON COUNTY, Kan. -- An explosion inside a GBW Railcar Services facility sent metal flying and workers to hospitals on Thursday. The 911 call was placed just after 2 p.m. The Atchison County Sheriff’s Office reported a rail car that was carrying fuel, possibly gasoline, exploded and sent seven employees to hospitals.

Ambulances rushed two of the most seriously injured to The University of Kansas Hospital’s burn unit where they're expected to undergo a full battery of tests.

"Right now they're getting all of their imaging done, CAT scans to see the extent of their trauma injuries from the explosion. As soon as that's known, the decision will be made whether they need to go to the operating room for any type of intervention related to that. After that they will be on the burn unit," Tracy McDonald, trauma and burn program manager at the hospital, said.

A hospital spokeswoman provided an update late Thursday night that both men were listed in fair condition.

Between 16 and 17 other employees were working at the rail car services facility at the time of the explosion. The area they were working in is where rail cars are stripped before they are painted. The explosion was massive and rescue crews were able to get to the scene quickly to take care of the injured and prevent further explosions.

They pulled the tanker that exploded and caught fire out of the warehouse and let it burn itself out. The employees who weren't injured were sent home after the troubling day at work.

“All the employees were shaken up. Given it's a small area they work in, even the office personnel you know, as loud as it was probably for all of them down there, probably pretty scary,” Atchison County Sheriff Jack Laurie said.

The Kansas State Fire Marshal's Office will handle the ongoing investigation. The type of fuel, why it was in the tanker and how it caught fire will be just a few of the questions the office will have to answer.

All of the injuries ranged from minor to serious, but none are believed to be life-threatening.

GBW Railcar Services is a joint venture between Oregon and Kansas based companies, creating a network of shops that repair and refurbish rail cars. Thursday's explosion wasn't the first time employees claim they've been put in danger while working for one of the partners in that joint venture.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA,  is well acquainted with Watco, a partner in the joint venture that GBW announced in July.

The Pittsburg, Kansas based company was cited for 17 violations at a facility in Hockley, Texas.

Two employees were killed after a combustible dust flash fire there in 2012. The initial proposed fine was more than $90,000 as OSHA cited the company in that case with 14 serious violations, including keeping work areas clean of combustible dust and confined space violations.

Later, the fines were appealed and brought down several thousand dollars. Then in March of 2014, OSHA investigated Watco again for an incident that happened in Omaha, Nebraska.

A worker suffered respiratory inflammation while welding in a rail car at a shop there. There, the company was cited for three repeat and three serious safety violations.

Once again, as in the investigation in Texas, most of those stemmed from the confined space safety regulations.

According to OSHA, confined spaces put workers at-risk for serious injury and illness due to poor air quality and other hazards. In that case OSHA proposed more than $133,000 in fines for Watco. It's unknown at this time how much of that will actually be required.

There was another case in 2013 out of Cherryvale, Kansas. In that case Watco was cited for unguarded floor openings, a serious violation. Watco was fined $4,900.

At present it's too early to tell what happened Thursday, or which agencies will take the lead.