Almighty Blast: The Massive Explosion of a Kazakh Gas Tanker in Almaty

Fire breaks outPhoto: Maxim Shatrov
Fire rages and smoke billows into the sky.

People nearby compared the explosion to cars colliding. Thick smoke billowed in its aftermath, while flames engulfed vehicles, trees and part of an apartment building. Residents and passersby alike panicked and feared that war had broken out.

This recent accident in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, is a tragic reminder that tanker trucks – such familiar sights on roads around the world – have the potential to become objects of terrifying destruction.

Putting out the flamesPhoto: Maxim Shatrov
The affected apartment building

The incident happened on June 27, 2013. According to officials, a tanker truck made its way onto the wrong side of the road and hit an SUV. Aleksandr Goryunov, who was behind the wheel, managed to pull back into his own lane before the truck hit a tree, flipped over and burst into flames. Tragically, Goryunov, who was trapped in the truck’s cab, was unable to escape before the explosion.

Covering truck in foamPhoto: Maxim Shatrov
Putting out the fire with foam

Photographer Maxim Shatrov was on hand to capture these images of the incident and the aftermath. He also interviewed several eyewitnesses, including Galia Zhunusbekovna, who works in a building across from where the explosion occurred. Zhunusbekovna was at the scene right after the accident.

Charred balconyPhoto: Maxim Shatrov
A charred balcony after the fire

“The driver of the fuel tanker was trying to get out, he waved his hands and disappeared in the flames,” said Zhunusbekovna to Shatrov. According to Shatrov, she also saw gasoline dripping into irrigation ditches, and cars and trees on fire.

Firemen in the streetPhoto: Maxim Shatrov
Firemen in front of burnt out cars

According to eyewitnesses, several people ran to the driver’s aid immediately after the crash. Yet although they tried frantically to release him from the truck, they couldn’t open the cab’s door, which had been jammed shut. At least one witness reports seeing Goryunov tell his would-be rescuers to move away from the vehicle, as it was going to explode.

Fire truckPhoto: Maxim Shatrov
Rescuers with a fire truck

Helios, the fuel company whose truck Goryunov was driving, described the 27-year-old as a hero for swerving the vehicle and avoiding other traffic. Goryunov’s father told Kazakhstan’s Tengri News, “He did the right thing, he saved people. He made his choice to smash into a tree.”

Tankers outside buildingPhoto: Maxim Shatrov
An orange tanker near the scene of the accident

The incident was alarming for those living in the affected apartment building. “I live above the shop, on the second floor,” resident Matsuura Huseynov told Shatrov. “When the explosion occurred, I thought that war had begun.”

The gathered crowdPhoto: Maxim Shatrov
A crowd gathered at the site

“The flames were higher than the building. When we left the building, the trees were still burning, and when we came out into the yard, the flames had spread to the third floor, literally within two to three minutes,” said another occupant.

Woman on balconyPhoto: Maxim Shatrov
Galia Zhunusbekovna, who works across from where the incident took place

The Kazakhstan Emergency Situations Ministry said that the fire caused by the crashed tanker covered 10,764 square feet (1,000 square meters). At the time of the incident, the tanker was carrying eight tons of gas. A trail of burning fuel spanning 820 feet (250 meters) leaked out of the truck and into the gutters.

Melted carPhoto: Maxim Shatrov
A burnt-out car

According to the Fire-Fighting Service of Almaty, events would have been a lot worse if the fuel had spread out over the road. Because the fuel streamed into the gutter, it was easier to cover with firefighting foam and contain the flames.

Firefighters worked hard to control the blaze and avert an even bigger disaster. The burning truck was hosed down with water to keep the metal from heating up and cracking. If this had happened, it would have allowed the fuel inside to catch fire and explode, with devastating consequences.

Standing in linePhoto: Maxim Shatrov
Officials were assigned to guard the damaged building from looters.

One hundred and twenty workers and 29 vehicles from the Fire-Fighting Service of Almaty were involved in the operation, and it took an hour and 48 minutes to completely put out the blaze. Cooling down the gas tanker alone involved eight water cannons and two carriage hoses.

Burnt kitchenPhoto: Maxim Shatrov
A burnt kitchen

Firefighters used foam rather than water to extinguish the burning gasoline, and it needed 290 gallons (1,100 liters) to put out all the flames. Meanwhile, 40 residents had to be evacuated from the affected buildings, and six people had to be rescued.

Fire damaged buildingPhoto: Maxim Shatrov
More devastation

Twelve cars were damaged by the fire, which also destroyed 16 apartments – two of them completely. Evacuated residents were offered food and accommodation, in the form of tents, at a nearby school. When Shatrov visited the tents, however, he only found one occupant. The rest had gone to stay with family and friends.

Rescued catPhoto: Maxim Shatrov
A house cat rescued from a family’s apartment

The mayor of Almaty has formed a special commission to look into the cause of the accident. And the Interior Department said that a criminal case has been initiated against Helios for neglecting to maintain its truck, for allowing an intoxicated driver to get behind the wheel, and for the traffic violations committed by the driver.

View from abovePhoto: Maxim Shatrov
A view of the damage from above

Goryunov’s family, friends and colleagues refute the allegation that the tanker driver was drunk when the accident occurred. “I have never seen him drunk. He was very responsible and had no bad habits. Anyone can confirm this,” said Goryunov’s neighbor Maria Tkachenko, talking to Tengri News. Colleague Vitaliy Bakunin added that Goryunov was a careful driver who obeyed all road rules.

Emergency tentPhoto: Maxim Shatrov
A tent set up to accommodate the evacuees

Helios provided 15 families affected by the fire with temporary accommodation. Meanwhile, all the damaged apartments and cars are being assessed for repairs or possible replacement. Insurance will also be paid out to Goryunov’s family once an autopsy has been completed. Goryunov had two children.

Damaged buildingPhoto: Maxim Shatrov
Emergency services at the scene

Konstantin Sviridov, director general of Helios, insists that all of the company’s tanker trucks are thoroughly checked before they go on the road. However, he concedes that the truck that exploded had outlived its eight- to nine-year lifespan and should not have been used. The company is gradually replacing its outdated trucks.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8