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Man Dies in Castaic Oil Well Blast

A second worker is critically burned in the early morning explosion, felt for miles. Experts arrive to help fight the fire.

November 17, 2002|Wendy Thermos | Times Staff Writer

One man was killed and another seriously burned Saturday in an oil well explosion near Castaic that was felt for miles and sent flames roaring 200 feet into the air, authorities said.

A team of oilfield disaster specialists from Texas was flown in to extinguish the natural-gas-fed blaze, which burned throughout the day as several dozen Los Angeles County firefighters stood near the wreckage of a 100-foot steel derrick that toppled and melted in the inferno.

Conventional firefighting techniques were deemed too risky by officials. "If we do it wrong, we could have another explosion," Fire Department spokesman Brian Jordan said.

Boots and Coots International Well Control, which extinguished burning wells in Kuwait during the Gulf War, hoped to have the fire out and the well capped by late today or sometime tomorrow, Jordan said.

The man who died was described as a 43-year-old member of a four-person crew, employed by Caza Drilling Co. of Bakersfield. He was removing an 8 1/2-inch drill bit from the well at 2 a.m. when the explosion occurred. As of late last night, he had not been positively identified.

Two of the four escaped injury, but Delton Russin, 35, of Bakersfield was badly burned on his face and taken to Sherman Oaks Grossman Burn Center. He was in critical but stable condition last night.

Authorities said it was unclear what caused the explosion, which is being investigated by Cal/OSHA, the state Division of Oil and Gas and the Sheriff's Department.

Gene Gaz, area manager for Caza Drilling, said the explosion appeared to have been caused by "something coming out of the well." Laurene Lopez, a spokeswoman for the County Fire Department, said officials were investigating the possibility that the drill bit hit a pocket of methane that was under pressure. Gaz said that theory was speculation.

Doug Miller, 23, of Castaic said he and a friend were about two miles away and felt the shock wave from the blast, then saw what looked like a 150- to 200-foot blowtorch shooting into the sky.

"It felt like a bomb," he said. "I thought a big propane tank at a nearby trailer park had exploded. It was 10 times louder than a sonic boom."

During the day, flames died down to 15 feet but burned fiercely at an estimated 1,200 to 2,000 degrees.

The well is part of an oilfield covering about a square mile in Tapia Canyon that has been drilled since the early 1960s, said oil exploration consultant Tony Kinnard, who has worked with drilling firms in the area. Wells in the Tapia oilfield generally reach a maximum depth of 1,200 feet, he said, adding, "You can bump into a gas pocket easily, and you never know when it's going to happen."

Ignition can occur if the drill bit sparks against another component of the well shaft, he said.

Raymond Henry, senior well control specialist for Boots and Coots, said by phone from company headquarters that the four-person team sent to Castaic would probably quell the blaze with water or explosives.

"A lot of times, we can extinguish the fire with water. You need a lot of volume, and fairly high pressure to do that," he said.

When explosives are used, they are packed at the end of a long boom and placed at the wellhead. "It disrupts the flow of gas. It's like blowing out a match, but a little more drastic," Henry said.

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Times staff writer Cara Mia DiMassa contributed to this report.

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