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    Blast puts driver of gas truck in hospital

    Injured and in pain, the driver moved the truck and prevented a bigger explosion, officials say.

    By JOHN BALZ, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 25, 2002
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    TAMPA -- A propane gas tank exploded Monday afternoon in Tampa Palms, severely injuring the delivery driver, setting fire to a home and killing the owner's pet.

    Officials say the accident could have been much worse had it not been for the heroic efforts of the driver.

    Dennis Schmotzer, 51, of Northside Propane, was filling two 100-pound cylinders at 16124 Ancroft Court when the explosion occurred about 12:30 p.m.

    Schmotzer is in serious condition at Tampa General Hospital with second- and third-degree burns over nearly 40 percent of his body.

    Fire officials suspect that leaking gas was ignited by an electric panel attached to the outside wall of the house, or by the heater for a spa. The cause of the leak has not been determined.

    The gas explosion is the second in a week. Last Tuesday, a Port Tampa Bay Cities Gas Corp. employee was filling two liquid propane tanks at a home on S Sherrill Street when leaking gas caused a fire.

    In Monday's fire, Ed Young, 69, was sitting down to a bowl of chicken noodle soup when he heard what he said sounded like a hydrogen bomb. Then came the smell of rotten eggs.

    "I knew immediately it was gas," Young said.

    Across the street, 17-year-old Nicki Pizzo's windows shook.

    "I heard the explosion and thought it was the space shuttle landing," she said.

    Schmotzer, from Tampa, told rescue teams he was aware of the leak but could not shut the tanks down in time, said Tampa Fire spokesman Capt. Bill Wade.

    After the blast, Schmotzer walked out to the front of the house. He was not on fire, but he looked dazed, said neighbor Deborah Moats.

    Schmotzer took his shirt off, opened the door to his yellow truck and took a drink. He sat there for a minute, said Moats, before starting the engine and moving the 3,000-gallon truck, sometimes called a bobtail, down the street.

    Wade said Schmotzer's quick thinking prevented more damage. If flames had reached the truck, a second larger explosion could have occurred.

    "The truck driver did a great deed, even though he was in a lot of pain," Wade said.

    Within a few minutes, the house was ablaze and thick, black smoke poured out of the garage. Dianne Jones, 52, opened the door to her house and called for her 10-year-old poodle, Rousseau, but she didn't come out, Moat said. Rescuers pulled the unconscious Rousseau out of a closet but could not revive him.

    Jones was not injuried. Her husband, LeGrand, declined to comment. No estimates were available on the damage to the house.

    Propane is colorless and odorless when it is extracted from the ground but gas companies add a product called mercaptin so that people can tell when the gas is leaking.

    Northside Propane officials in Lutz did not return calls.

    -- John Balz can be reached at (813) 269-5313 or at balz@sptimes.com

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