Thursday, August 02, 2001

Law officials still probe why steam engine burst

The Associated Press

        MEDINA, Ohio — Investigators know that water hitting hot metal caused an explosion in a steam-driven tractor at the Medina County Fair, but couldn't say Wednesday whether mechanical problems or operator error caused the deadly blast.

        Investigators say the water moving across the hot metal created steam that caused intense boiler pressure on the 83-year-old tractor that exploded Sunday, killing four men and injuring about 50 people.

        Sheriff's Detective John Detchon said the investigation continues.

[photo] Accident investigators look at a Case steam-powered tractor this week at the Medina County Fair.
(Associated Press photo)
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        “I have no other information back from the experts. But it appears that what's happened. That's pure physics,” Detective Detchon said Wednesday.

        Steam engine and boiler experts have been called in. Detective Detchon said the water had to be released by the tractor's operator. “It's a manually operated system. It doesn't automatically inject water,” he said.

        But Detective Detchon said a stuck or faulty gauge may have fooled tractor owner Clifford Kovacic into thinking the water level was higher.

        Mr. Kovacic, 48, was driving the tractor into place, with friend Alan Kimble, 46, riding alongside, when it exploded. Mr. Kovacic's son, William, 26, was directing. It's unclear where friend Dennis Jungbluth, 58, was standing. All four were killed.

        Medina Police Sgt. Scott Thomas said Wednesday one possibility being examined is whether the old tractor might have jerked as its gears were shifted.

        “Sometimes when these big steam engines go into gear they jerk forward. So maybe water sloshed onto the crown plate, which would have been red hot. I'm not saying that's what happened, though, but it's something we're looking at,” he said.

        About 50 people were injured when they were hit by shrapnel and scalding water. Sixteen remained hospitalized Wednesday, two in critical condition.

        Sheriff Neil Hassinger said he wants to determine a cause of the blast before the fair ends Sunday.

        “I'm not going to quit until we find out what happened,” he said.

        Complicating the investigation is the extensive damage to the 25-ton tractor that once stood more than 14 feet tall. The force of the explosion ripped the machine apart.

        David Thompson was at the fair Sunday with his wife, daughter and two granddaughters. The family made a stop to see the steam engines.

        Standing near the main gate, the family watched the Case 110 Steam Engine rumble past.

        “I thought I heard the sound of steam releasing. In the next millionth of a second we were covered by steam and boiling water. There was no time to protect yourself. I got hit and then I was on the ground,” he said.

        He was hospitalized and was released Monday.

        Mr. Thompson saw his wife, daughter and granddaughters injured and bloody.

        His wife, Mildred Thompson, remembers the sun beating into her burned skin.


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