Investigator says manager caused motel explosion
A state investigator reported that the manager of the Hermitage Motel in Bartow was responsible for an accidental explosion which destroyed a portion of the motel.
In a January 28 report, State Fire Marshal investigator William Robinson concluded that motel manager Darrell Wagoner was using a homemade device to take propane from the motel and accidentally caused the explosion.
The January 4 blast devastated the building which housed the motel's restaurant, business office and the manager's apartment, where Wagoner and his wife, Renee, lived. Darrell Wagoner was hospitalized with burns after the blast and is reportedly recovering at his wife's parents' home in Verona, Virginia. Renee Wagoner was uninjured and was seen speaking to police after the explosion.
Wagoner and his wife managed and lived at the motel for two years. The motel closed the day of the explosion and the couple were in the process of moving back to their home in Blue Grass, Virginia.
Gregg Morse, executive manager of Old Dominion Hotels, LLC, said he thought Wagoner was taking propane to heat his Virginia home.
"It was my manager who was doing it and he was apparently worried about freezing when he got back to his house in Virginia," he said.
Robinson's report states that compressors were connected between a propane supply line and a 100-pound propane tank.
"On the basement level under the collapsed floor, it was discovered a 100 pound propane tank, a compressor, two sets of air conditioning maintenance gauges, several separate rubber lines with connections and two air conditioning compressor units," the report states. "These items were also connected to a main copper line from a wall mounted propane heater. The propane heater was connected to this mess by a rubber hose and then connected to a gauge. There was fire damage surrounding the wall mounted heater. It was also observed the wall mounted heater was not connected to the wall and had been moved to expose the copper line. It appeared that this mass of appliances connected to the 100 pound propane tank was in an effort to steal propane from the motel."
"It is the opinion of the undersigned officer that this explosion was accidental, but due to the victim attempting to manufacture a homemade device to take propane from the business propane tank," the report continues.
Morse said Old Dominion closed the motel due to the economic slowdown, but had been considering reopening the business in the spring. The executive said insurance examiners are in the process of deciding whether the structure can be rebuilt.
No information was available from the county Prosecuting Attorney's Office or Sheriff's Department on possible criminal charges in the incident.