Damage from Palolo blast caused by child playing with lighter tops $1M

(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

PALOLO, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A 6-year-old playing with a lighter apparently set a fire that ignited an oxygen tank and set off an explosion that seriously injured two people in a Palolo housing complex on Tuesday, officials have confirmed.

Both of those who suffered extensive burns work at the housing complex and rushed to the affected unit after hearing about the fire.

Shortly after they arrived at the unit, a 3,500-liter oxygen tank exploded.

"We're just trying to all rally around our two managers. It has been tough on the whole community," said Dave Nakamura, executive director of Mutual Housing Association of Hawaii. "We'll kind of re-evaluate all that happened here and see if there's anything we can do to make things safer on our side, but I think it's kind of just a tragic and fluke accident."

The blast, about 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, was loud enough to be heard across the valley and caused significant damage in a number of units. Thirty-two people from six families have been displaced.

Fire officials put the damage from the fire at more than $1.1 million.

"When children are not supervised ... (and) have ready access to matches or lighters, their likelihood of playing with fire increases," Fire Cap. Scot Seguirant said, in a statement. "Securing matches and lighters away from children and being within view of the child greatly reduces opportunities for unwanted fire."

A 61-year-old property manager suffered critical injuries in the explosion, with first- and second-degree burns to his face, hands and upper body.

Meanwhile, a 58-year-old resident services manager was in serious condition with second-degree burns to about 25 percent of her body.

A third man was taken to a hospital for a medical condition, but no injuries.

The 6-year-old boy who apparently started the fire was not injured in the explosion. He told police that he was playing with a lighter and lit a piece of paper on fire. He got scared and put it in a drawer and left the room.

When his grandmother got home, she saw smoke coming from the upstairs room. She, the boy and his mother were able to get out safely.

When the two managers arrived at the scene, the oxygen tank in the unit exploded.

"Kids will be kids. All we can do is help and guide," said resident Robert Gonzalez. "It's unfortunate, but I hope they're all OK."

Residents said the blast shook windows, broke glass and sent debris flying.

"I was eating and we just heard this big explosion and the building and everything shook," said one resident. "It was scary."

"Blown out all the windows on my building," added Gonzalez. "All blown out. Glass all over the place."

Shayne Enright, spokeswoman for the city Department of Emergency Services, said four EMS units responded to the scene Tuesday afternoon. "That's nearly a quarter of our entire fleet," she said.

Fire officials said the explosion happened in Building 27 at the housing complex. At least two other buildings have also sustained damage.

Housing officials are working on temporary and permanent solutions for the displaced residents who may be moved into vacant units in the complex.

Resident Sydney Blanke said the blast sounded "like a cannon going off."

"The house shook. The ground shook," she said.

It was so loud Palolo Elementary School went into a lockdown for more than an hour, as first responders determined what had happened.

This story will be updated.

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