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October 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 26, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Mysterious Case of the Stolen, Exploding Tank

from the October, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Russell Vanhorn II, a 23-year-old Iraqi War veteran who fell in love with diving after getting certified during his military service, was preparing for a dive trip in his St. Petersburg, FL, apartment early on the morning of September 11 when the small pony tank he was handling exploded, killing him.

The explosion blew out the front door and windows of his apartment, and sent debris flying 75 feet away, and blowing out some windows of cars parked nearby. The tank was found split down the middle from top to bottom, lodged overhead in what was left of the kitchen ceiling. Luckily, the two other people in his apartment were in separate rooms and were not injured.

A witness getting his morning newspaper told police he saw a bright flash when the explosion happened, suggesting the tank held pure oxygen. But the medical examiner who did the autopsy said it's still not clear what triggered the blast. When investigators reassembled the tank, they discovered that the escape valve, which controls pressure of the gases, was missing, but they found it in the explosion rubble two days after Vanhorn's death. The cause of death was ruled accidental, with the explosion causing severe damage to Vanhorn's side, leg and arm. Also, it has not been determined whether it was air or oxygen in the tank, as the autopsy showed no signs of a heat-generating type of explosion, like burning tissue.

As it turns out, two of the tanks in the apartment were confirmed as stolen, although police had not yet determined if the exploding pony tank was as well. The Tampa Police Department's bomb squad inspected the tanks and let the air out, but it's unknown if they measured tank pressure or mixes before doing so.

Vanhorn worked as a dive instructor for Scuba West in Hudson, FL, which reported the tanks missing. Scuba West had recently fired him when he stole a dive reel from the shop, and an employee found it in his bag. The St. Petersburg Times reports that a Scuba West client reported seeing Vanhorn with the shop's tanks at Eagle Nest, a local cave diving spot, in July. And just before Vanhorn's death, ScubaWest reported some equipment missing, including seven tanks, four dive lights and a regulator, although authorities said there was no evidence yet to charge Vanhorn for all the stolen gear.

The demolished tank was sent to Pinellas County's forensic lab for signs of anything combustible, then the tank will be given to the U.S. Transportation Department, which regulates pressure cylinders, to determine what went wrong.

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