Man seriously burned in Delhi minivan explosion

Above: A video of the fire shot by Laura Gioffe and shared with the Watershed Post. 

A 19-year-old Delhi man was gravely injured in an explosion behind the American Legion building in Delhi around 8:15 p.m. on Wednesday, May 13. The minivan he was driving rammed into a 1,000-gallon propane tank behind the building and exploded, Delaware County officials and police say.

The man, 19-year-old Joseph Mueller of Delhi, was taken to O’Connor Hospital in Delhi and then was airlifted by helicopter to Upstate Medical University in Syracuse by LifeNet, according to Steve Hood, the director of Delaware County Emergency Services, and to a press release from Delhi Police Chief Michael Mills. 

The man was not affiliated with the Legion, nor had he attended an event there the night of the explosion, said Ed McGrath, the commander of the Delhi American Legion Post. The Legion was hosting a bingo night when the explosion occurred. 

Above: The blaze behind the Legion Hall in Delhi at its peak at dusk on Wednesday, May 13. Photo by Quinn Kelley. 

Hood, who is the assistant chief of the Delhi Fire Department, was one of the first firefighters to arrive at the scene of the fire. He said that when first responders arrived at around 8:30 p.m., they found the driver of the minivan outside the vehicle, which was on fire.

The man was conscious, but he was badly burned and was unable to speak, Hood said. The man was young, in his 20s, Hood said.

Hood said that the man managed to extricate himself from the burning minivan after it had exploded. By the time firefighters arrived, the man was sitting by the pavilion behind the Legion hall, badly injured.

The investigation into the exact cause of the explosion is ongoing, Hood said. But it appears that the man drove into the Legion’s large industrial tank of propane at a high speed, causing it to leak highly flammable propane, he said.

The minivan also damaged an electric pole, causing electricity to arc and possibly ignite the propane gas, Hood said.

The propane tank itself did not explode, Hood said. Instead, the main explosion was the leaked propane and the gas tank of the minivan igniting in a massive fireball.

Above: Investigators examine the charred remains of a minivan that exploded on May 13. The propane tank that the minivan crashed into is visible in the righthand side of the frame, where it rolled after the crash, officials said. Photo by Julia Reischel. 

The explosion was felt by Delhi residents many blocks away. The burning minivan was the center of the blaze, which also destroyed three small outbuildings and melted the siding off the back of the Legion hall, Hood and Legion officials said. The pavillion behind the Legion Hall was also damaged by the blaze, a Delhi police press release stated. 

The blaze was quickly extinguished down by firefighters. By 9 p.m., the fire was out and fire investigators were examining the wreckage.

The blaze destroyed several outbuildings at the Legion, but it caused only minor damage to the main building itself, where bingo night was in session, McGrath said. 

“The hall was full,” McGrath said.

Donna Houghton of Hobart was playing bingo at the Legion that night, and said that there were about 60 bingo players present in the hall when a Legion staff member told them to evacuate. 

"Someone came flying out of the kitchen, waving his arms, yelling 'Everybody out!'" Houghton said.

The bingo players evacuated the building, she said.

"The Legion was very proactive about getting everybody out when they knew something was wrong," Houghton said. "That was their main concern."

As she was walking across the parking lot, Houghton said, she heard a large explosion.

"You could feel the ground shake," she said.

She also heard a loud hissing, presumably from the broken propane tank, and smelled propane, she said.

After the initial evacuation, some bingo players were allowed to return to the Legion building while the first responders fought the blaze, according to Hood and Houghton. But then they were quickly ordered out again, Houghton said.

The players were persuaded to leave the game early, Hood and McGrath said.

The Delhi Fire Department, the Delhi Police Department, the Delaware County Sheriff's Office and the New York State Police all responded to the incident. 

Update, Friday, May 15: Joseph Mueller, the driver of the minivan, has died, police say. Read the full story here. 

Correction: The bingo game did not resume after the American Legion hall was evacuated, as a previous version of this story stated.