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Fatal gas tank blast brings calls for better warnings

By Susan Candiotti and Ross Levitt, CNN
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Call for action after deaths
  • Two Mississippi teens killed when natural gas tank at well production site exploded
  • Local teens in Carnes say the quiet, secluded site was a popular hangout
  • Parents say deaths preventable if some warning signs had been posted
  • Push is now on requiring fences, locks, warning signs at gas, oil tank facilities

Carnes, Mississippi (CNN) -- The deaths of two Mississippi teens are about to put a national focus on a little-recognized problem.

Devon Byrd, 16, and Wade White, 18, were killed when a natural gas tank at a well production site exploded last fall in Carnes, in southern Mississippi. Local teenagers said the site is a popular hangout because it's quiet and secluded.

But the dead teens' parents say the explosion could have been prevented if some warning signs had been posted -- "something simple as fences, gates and signs, probably very inexpensive, and certainly a lot less expensive that what a child's life is worth," said White's father, Phillip.

Police say they don't know exactly what ignited flammable vapors inside the tank. When it exploded, the teenagers were killed instantly. Their bodies were found about 40 yards from the tank's base; the tank landed another 20 yards from them. Investigators say they found a lighter, but don't know whether it was involved.

"I couldn't believe that my child was gone," White's mother, Wanda, told CNN.

The White and Byrd families have an ally in their camp. The Chemical Safety Board, created by Congress, investigated the accident and found at least 40 other deaths involving oil and gas wells in the past 25 years. Most of them involved young people.

The CSB says it found a patchwork of laws nationwide that don't uniformly address security around oil and gas wells. It's asking the industry to police itself by voluntarily installing fences and warning signs.

"If these tanks are sitting out there in the middle of nowhere, no protection around them, no warning, they are just an accident waiting to happen," CSB Chairman John Bresland told CNN.

Delphi Oil, the company that owns the tank that blew up, told CNN it could not discuss the accident because of pending negligence lawsuits filed by the families. A spokesman called the boys' deaths tragic, but the company says it is complying with all rules.

However, authorities tell CNN there are no state regulations requiring locked gates or no-smoking signs.

"He may be in compliance," Forrest County Sheriff Billy McGee told CNN. "But there's nothing in the rules for him to be in compliance with."

Carnes is about 40 miles north of the Gulf Coast. In nearby Laurel, city zoning laws require oil and gas tanks to be fenced in with warning signs, according to Emergency Management District Executive Director Terry Steed.

The CSB asked family and friends of Byrd and White to help them make an educational video about the dangers of oil and gas production sites. It's called "No Place to Hang Out," and it's part of a national campaign starting this week to teach young people about the potential danger of tanks. But it also urges the industry to improve itself.

"There's nothing we can do to bring Devon and Wade back, " said White's girlfriend, Maria Thompson, 16. "But if it can save someone else's life, I'd like to see it happen."

"Like McDonalds," added another friend, Shawn Ashlee Davis. "They have to put 'Caution. This coffee's hot' (on their cups). I really think they need signs warning 'This is a dangerous place.' "

Mississippi state Sen. Billy Hudson told CNN he plans to introduce a state law requiring barbed-wire-topped fences, locked gates and "Danger - Keep Out" signs.

"There's no guarantees," Hudson said. "You could cut the fence with a bolt cutter, or you can shoot off a lock. But it'll be a deterrent, and it's a step in the right direction."

White's father says his son would be proud that friends and family are speaking out: "He'd be proud that we're trying to do something to keep other kids and other families from going through what we're going through."