10/02/2012 10:15 EDT | Updated 12/02/2012 05:12 EST

Winnipeg Fire: Speedway International Blaze Out, Damages Pegged At $15 Million (VIDEO, PHOTOS)

WINNIPEG - Fire investigators pored through the charred, twisted remains of the Speedway International fuel plant Tuesday as a worker recalled seeing a huge ball of fire erupt into the sky — the start of a massive blaze that caused $15 million in damage.

"The flame ball that went up was a methanol tank in the back, behind," Evan Basarowich said, as he pointed to the remains of a large warehouse from the outskirts of the company's property, marked by yellow police tape. Next to the empty shell of a warehouse were three rail tanker cars filled with flammable liquid. The normally-black paint on one car was scorched white.

"We were just lucky CP Rail and the fire department and the police department responded the way they did to get those other tankers out of the way ... or it could have been a lot worse than what it really was."

Basarowich and fire officials say there was a lot of luck that prevented Monday's blaze from becoming a disaster, including calm winds and the unusual fact the plant was empty.

Basarowich, who helps make biodiesel, and some of the company's other eight employees normally start the day's second shift at 3 p.m. But they were told to come in late Monday because the company was still awaiting a shipment of magnesol, a powder used to purify biodiesel. Workers on the first shift had gone home early for the same reason.

Around 5 p.m., a fire alarm went off. Basarowich, who lives not far away, was called in to see what was going on. Firefighters were already there and had set up an area for workers to gather on the grounds.

"When I showed up, I talked to some of the firefighters and they told me to go to the command centre," Basarowich recalled.

Standing there, Basarowich saw the mushroom-shaped cloud erupt and felt the blast of heat rush over him. The cloud could be seen for dozens of kilometres in any direction. A methanol tank had exploded and firefighters were worried rail cars, trucks and large storage barrels would be next.

Basarowich and others were told to leave. Some of the 60 firefighters on the scene started dousing the rail cars to keep them from catching fire, but could not attack the blaze directly for about five hours. Businesses and homes in a one-kilometre radius were evacuated.

As the evening wore on, firefighters retreated twice to remain out of the way of barrels that exploded without warning. Eventually, crews gained the upper hand and started beating back the flames. City officials gave the all-clear shortly after midnight and residents were allowed to return home.

Light winds overnight helped keep the fire from spreading. The strong gusts that blew in Tuesday morning would have made the job a lot tougher, said deputy fire cheif Bill Clark.

"If these winds would have been here yesterday, we might not be here right now, we might still be working on this (fire)," he said.

"Right now, the wind is blowing in the absolute worst direction — (toward homes)."

The extreme heat of the blaze also helped. The huge amount of racing fuel, biodiesel and other products spread around the industrial park site burned quickly and cleanly, reducing concerns about toxic smoke wafting through the city.

While investigators worked to determine the cause of the fire, Basarowich and his colleagues wondered if they would have jobs to return to.

Basarowich had moved back to Winnipeg from Ontario only two months ago for the job at Speedway and to be close to family.

"Who knows if (the owner) is going to rebuild?, Basarowich said.

"Now, it's all just question marks as to what goes on from here."

Speedway makes products including windshield washer fluid, biodiesel and Pro Comp racing methanol, which it ships throughout North America in sealed 55-gallon drums via tank trucks and by rail.

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