‘We could have prevented this’ testifies an expert in deadly Rockbridge County gas station explosion

It’s been more than three years since the fatal explosion

ROCKBRIDGE COUNTY, Va. – It’s been more than three years since an explosion at a Rockbridge County gas station. Four people died and a man was charged with involuntary manslaughter. On Tuesday in court, investigators testified about what they believe caused that explosion.

Phillip Westmoreland is charged with involuntary manslaughter. He worked for a Roanoke-based oil company and refueled South River Market less than an hour before the explosion.

Before the Commonwealth completed their presentation, they called on two investigators who spoke about the conditions of the market before and after the explosion and what they believe caused all of this. Their testimony also explained why charges were sought for Westmoreland.

Chris Casino, a mechanical engineer, was part of the investigation team.

His work began in June 2019, tracing paths where pipes ran beneath the station. He also checked the integrity of the tanks.

It was discovered the pipes and tanks were up to code prior to the explosion.

Propane and diesel were eliminated as causes as well. Propane was only in small quantity and diesel lacks the characteristics of the explosion, according to testimony.

Aaron Redsicker, a fire investigator, said fuel in the pit of tanks fed the fire as it burned for hours after the explosion. He testified gasoline vapors from the pit escaped through the inspection hole at tank one. A cap that was meant to trap those vapors was not found by investigators.

“During the investigation, we looked for the remains of the cap, we never found the cap. There were also three witnesses who stated they saw fluid coming out of the same area before the explosion,” testified Redsicker. “Mr. Westmoreland had accessed that area and had to remove that cap in order to fill up those tanks.”

The gas station had several ignition sources inside. Any of them could have interreacted with the large concentration of vapors causing an explosion, said Redsicker. Investigators say the initial blast likely originated in the basement toward the back of the store.

On Monday, another investigator said he looked at how much fuel was supposed to be inside the tanks compared to how much Westmoreland logged and found an excess of 800 gallons, meaning they believe he overfilled the tanks.

Redsicker testified Westmoreland had to remove the cap and failed to replace it.

“Vapors collected in the basement that ignited. They travel back toward the ignition source or fuel source, which were the tanks and we saw all of that fuel burning off all around that tank area,” said Redsicker.

The Commonwealth rested its case, and the defense began calling experts who refute just about all Commonwealth expert testimony.

Defense expert Dr. John Cignatta testified he didn’t find evidence of an overfill based on how the flames were coming out of the pipes and the damage to the tanks.

He says he did find evidence of missing safety disrupters that would have stopped this explosion. Things such as an emergency stop button, a trap door device that would have prevented vapors from escaping whether a cap was replaced or not, overfill protection devices, and more.

When asked by defense attorney Rob Dean if any of the safety equipment would have helped avoid the explosion, Dr. Cignatta said, “This item is a drop tube. If only there had been a drop tube, we could not have created the massive cloud of explosive gases. This alone would have prevented that from happening.”

That tube would have been inside the tank and controlled how gas entered it.

Cignatta also pointed out that the tanks and building are required by regulators to be 50 feet apart and at least 100 feet from the street, respectively. The building was only one-fourth the required distance from the tanks and the street was only 20 or so feet away.

The defense is expected to call more witnesses Wednesday before both parties present their closing arguments.

About the Author

McKinley Strother joined the WSLS 10 News team in June 2020. He anchors 10 News at 6 and 11 on Saturdays and Sundays and you'll also catch him reporting during the week.

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