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Fire obliterates motor home in less than 20 minutes

| July 11, 2007 12:00 AM

By KYLE McCLELLAN The Western News

An exploding propane tank, bursting tires and detonating ammunition marked the latest motor home fire in Libby Thursday afternoon as 16 firefighters rushed to douse the blaze in the Antler's Restaurant parking lot.

The owners of the motor home, Leroy and Judy Cole, of Newport, Wash., sustained only minor injuries in the incident.

The couple was dining in Antler's Restaurant when the fire broke out around 4:40 p.m.

Witnesses in the restaurant said Mr. Cole injured his arms and hands when he ran into the burning motor home to save the couple's two small dogs.

According to Steve Lauer, the assistant fire marshal for Libby Volunteer Fire Department, a propane leak caused the blaze, which melted the taillights of at least one car parked nearby and sent a towering plume of black smoke into the air.

A large explosion, which officials said was the propane tank itself, was followed by several smaller explosions that sounded like gunshots.

Witnesses later said Mr. Cole had told them that it was his ammunition going off in the fire.

The initial propane explosion, according to Libby fire chief Tom Wood, blasted debris into a motorcycle saddlebag in the Treasure Mountain Casino parking lot more than 300 feet away. The motorcycle owner was sitting on the bike, watching the fire.

"He said it was just like a bullet going through it," Wood said. "Normally, you'd think you'd be safe over there."

Chris Haines, a front desk attendant at the Super 8 Motel next door to the restaurant, said a guest ran in when she saw the engine on fire. Haines grabbed his cell

phone, ran outside and called the police.

"The older gentleman ran back inside (the motor home) for his dogs. And it was on fire," Haines said.

Nancy Matter, of Libby, was inside the restaurant with her family when the fire broke out.

When the gunshot sounds started, she said that the owner blurted out, "Oh, that's my ammunition."

Her mom's car, still with the dealer plates attached, sustained the taillight damage.

"It got singed, her brand new car. She just got a new car," Matter said.

Nicole McCulloch, who was also inside the restaurant, said Ms. Cole told her that the couple pulled into the parking lot when they started to smell propane.

McCulloch said it was a close call when Mr. Cole made it out of the motor home with the dogs

"We were all yelling, 'Don't go in!'" McCulloch said.

Lauer said a propane leak is usually the result of a recent filling or overfilling of the tank.

"Sometimes they can overfill it and then the heat and the expansion from the propane will cause the relief valve to activate," he said. "And it's not that big of a deal unless it finds an ignition source."

But Lauer doesn't suspect that was the explanation because the couple hadn't filled the tank since they left Newport.

"So it seems to me there's some type of valve failure or seal failure on the valve," Lauer said. "I'm positive it's associated with a propane leak from that on-board tank. I just don't know why."