An emotional Daren Parker stood before county officials this week and shared his gratitude for the emergency responders, law enforcement and a caring community that was there when he, his family and his employees needed them.
Parker, whose family owns Parker Gas Co. Inc., headquartered in Clinton, also operates Rapid Xchange, a propane tank refill and exchange location that was the site of multiple explosions late last week. Two employees had to be airlifted to the UNC Chapel Hill Jaycee Burn Center and homes were evacuated in the surrounding area following a report Friday of blasts at the business, located at 6280 Hobbton Hwy.
Black smoke could be seen billowing in the air from miles away.
“We had an incident Friday that was really scary, where we had a fire break out at the back part of our facility,” said Parker. “We had two employees who were burned and had to be airlifted to Chapel Hill. If there’s any good news about that, it’s that there are no life-threatening injuries to those guys and they’re being treated well. Hopefully they’re going to recover, it’s just going to take some time.”
Parker gave his thanks during the public comment portion at the end of the Sampson Board of Commissioners’ regular monthly meeting as his wife Michelle sat in the audience.
“I came here tonight on behalf of my family to say thank you to this county for what they did for us,” Parker said, his voice shaking.
Just a month before, Daren and Michelle’s son Casey addressed commissioners from the same spot, talking to them about his proposed Eagle Scout project. At that June meeting, Casey talked about the importance of electronics recycling and said he wanted, with assistance from his parents, grandparents and Waste Industries, to renovate the county’s two e-waste collection sites and spread the word through pamphlets and new signs. The board gave its unanimous blessing. The previous weekend, Michelle helped spearhead the organization of another successful Sampson Relay for Life event.
The Parker family is deeply rooted in the community. And, Parker said, the community was there to help when the family needed it Friday.
“It was really amazing to see how professional everyone was — from the fire departments to the EMS to Emergency Management — and how they got in there and took control of that situation,” Parker noted. “It was a very critical situation and it could have become a lot worse if they hadn’t done the things they did.
“I just felt like it was the right thing to come tell you guys that we have got a lot to be proud of in this county, and for some things you don’t realize, until you need it,” he continued. “So, thank you. I really appreciate it.”
Board chairman Clark Wooten reciprocated.
“We thank you for coming. Just a mere three or four days removed (from Friday), most people would have been so consumed in rebuilding and restarting that they would not have taken time to come here tonight. We appreciate that. It speaks highly of you and it speaks highly of your family. We appreciate what you do to employ in this county and we appreciate you coming here tonight.”
Fire departments that responded to Rapid Xchange included Halls, Newton Grove, Vann Crossroads, Clinton, Piney Grove, Turkey, Herring, Salemburg and Clement. Both Sampson County Emergency Management Services and Suttontown Rescue responded with assistance from the Sampson County Sheriff’s Office and N.C. Highway Patrol.
Firefighters discovered a large fire in the tank storage yard with multiple 20-pound LP cylinders exploding in the vicinity.
Traffic was diverted as officials closed U.S. 701 between King Road and Keener Road in both directions. Residents within a one-mile radius of the propane plant were evacuated, and the county opened an emergency shelter at L.C. Kerr School for those with no other options for housing. Officials said it was set up to provide easy access to residents traveling from the area.
According to county officials, the evacuation was ordered as local firefighters worked to control the spreading of flames and keep the two 30,000 gallon LP tanks cool. In addition to the two larger tanks, the yard is filled with roughly 25,000 of the 20-pound cylinders.
Once the scene was cleared, allowing residents to return to their residences, the shelter was closed. Assistance was also provided to anyone with special needs at the Adult Day Care Center in Clinton.
In the wake of the incident, Sampson County Fire Marshal Jerry Cashwell said the Regional Response Team from Fayetteville conducted air monitoring, clearing the scene a short time later. The Department of Labor, Fire Marshal’s Office and State Bureau of Investigation took over the subsequent fire investigation.
On Monday, Commissioner Jerol Kivett said he has been in the same position and implored Parker to keep his head up.
“I’ve experienced the same thing, unfortunately more than one time. I have an idea of what you’re going through,” said Kivett. “Hang in there, or prayers and with you and we appreciate what you do here in the county.”
Wooten asked that Parker’s sentiments be shared with county personnel and first responders.
“We do have some exceptional employees,” Wooten said.
“You do,” Parker replied. “It’s hard for me to not get emotional, because it was a tough day Friday. If it hadn’t been for the county, the volunteers and the paid employees, we could have lost a lot more than we did. Thank you all so much.”
Managing Editor Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 2587.