Iraq War Vet Dies in Unlikely Scuba Explosion

Tank explosion resulted in the death of a 23-year-old Iraq War veteran.

September 12, 2011, 2:07 PM

Sept 12, 2011 — -- An Iraq war veteran planning a diving expedition with two friends in Florida was killed Sunday morning when the scuba tank he was carrying exploded.

Russell Vanhorn III, a 23 year-old former Marine originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was carrying the tank into the parking lot of an apartment complex in St. Petersburg, Fla., when it ruptured. Vanhorn treated for severe traumatic injuries at St. Petersburg General Hospital and pronounced dead shortly after.

"The explosion was so big it damaged vehicles within a 100 feet of the incident," said , Lt. Joel Granata of St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue. "I've never seen anything like this."

St. Pete Fire and Rescue says Vanhorn was preparing for a scuba diving trip with two friends who live in the one-story apartment complex. They were both inside the apartment when the explosion occurred and were not injured.

"When we arrived we noticed the front door of the apartment was blown out, and the man was in the doorway -- half in, half out," said Granata.

The blast caused damages to several vehicles in the apartment complex parking lot including broken windows, chipped paint, one car even suffered a door being blown out completely.

Granata said fire and police investigators along with a local dive master reported to the scene immediately. They inspected the remaining scuba supplies, checked pressures and bled the air out of a remaining nine tanks that were inside the apartment. The Tampa Bomb Squad also reported to the scene as a precaution.

"In 33 years I've never seen a scuba tank failure before," Granata tells ABC News.

The St. Petersburg Times reports that Vanhorn learned to scuba dive at Camp Pendleton while serving in the Marine Corps. The Times quotes Vanhorn's father as saying that his son aspired to begin a career in scuba diving with another friend from Iowa.

Tank Explosions Not Unheard Of

Jill Heinerth, a technical diving expert and legal consultant, said this particular scenario is unusual but added that scuba tank explosions are not unheard of.

"Pressurized tanks can explode for a number of reasons," said Heinerth. "If a tank were to fall over for instance, and the oxygen valves move to an on position and let's suppose there's a source of ignition like a car that's running, if these mix then you've got all the right components for a massive explosion."

Heinerth cited two other cases that resulted in scuba tank explosions. In 2004 a Florida woman was killed when an oxygen tank she was refilling failed and exploded. And earlier this year a former ABC affiliate photographer in North Carolina dropped a fiberglass oxygen tank and it exploded in his garage. He suffered burns to his body and had to have his arm amputated. His wife, who was on the other side of the wall looking at a mirror, suffered injuries when the glass mirror shattered.

Heinerth stressed the importance of following the federal scuba guidelines set forth by the US Department of Transportation. Divers should have their tanks visually inspected by a certified technician once a year and every five years a hydro static test must be performed. If divers are using anything other than air in their tanks then they should have the tank oxygen cleaned annually by certified technicians.

"People get killed when truck tires explode, and truck tires are filled to less than 100 pounds per square inch (psi). Just imagine, scuba tanks are filled to about 3000 psi," said Heinerth.

Heinerth also recommended that people get their tanks filled at a reputable air fill station or dive shop to ensure they have clean air and that it's filled properly, this will lessen contamination that could potentially lead to an explosion.

Puetz said the St. Petersburg Police are investigating to determine if the tank was properly filled with oxygen, had proper attachments and determine if Vanhorn was carrying the tank when the explosion occurred or if he had set it down at the moment.

Vanhorn's friends have had to vacate their apartment, which police have boarded up.

Vanhorn is expected to be laid to rest in his hometown.

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