An investigation is underway after an explosion at an Arizona Public Service (APS) substation in Surprise injured eight West Valley firefighters on April 19, Peoria Fire-Medical spokesman Michael Selmer said at an April 22 press conference.
While four Peoria firefighters – Capt. Hunter Clare, Engineer Justin Lopez and firefighters Matt Cottini and Jake Ciulla – were involved in the incident, as of print only three remain hospitalized, under stable conditions, as the fourth recovers from home after being discharged. The other four, from the Surprise Fire-Medical Department, received nonlife-threatening injuries and were also discharged.
Selmer said the four Peoria firemen responded to reports of smoke the evening of April 19 because they were the closest hazardous material (HAZMAT) team to the APS facility near Grand Avenue and Deer Valley. The explosion occurred after 8 p.m.
Lopez, who, as of April 19, had undergone two surgeries, “experienced the biggest portion of this explosion,” Selmer said. Lopez suffered a nose fracture, skull fracture, collapsed lung, rib fractures and right leg tibia and fibula fractures.
Clare sustained bilateral ankle fractures, a possible wrist fracture, a thoracic fracture and multiple burns and lacerations, as well as a scapula injury that will be left to heal on its own.
“Both Engineer Justin Lopez and Capt. Hunter Clare were flown. So, those injuries were pretty severe,” Selmer said.
On a post to the Peoria Fire-Medical Twitter on April 21, officials noted Lopez was “awake and doing as well as can be expected.” The post continued, “He was very anxious until his wife Sara came in the room.”
It added that Clare’s “surgery was successful and he is in great spirits.”
Cottini and Ciulla, who were both grounded to the hospital following the explosion, were released then readmitted over the weekend, Selmer said at the press conference.
Cottini, who received lacerations and burns to the head and jaw, as well as a knee injury, was discharged the evening of April 20. After severe headaches, though, he was transported back to the hospital the following morning.
“They did a CT scan on him, checked him out. We just got the results back. They are negative, which is good. Now, he’s just waiting on a concussion (consultation) before they’ll release him,” Selmer said.
And Ciulla, who suffered minor burns and lacerations, returned to the hospital that same morning after experiencing “full body aches and pains.” He was discharged again later that day and is clear and stable, Selmer said.
Selmer described the firemen as a “very, very experienced team” who made good calls.
“Everything was done by the book. Everything was done in order, properly done. This is just an unfortunate event that nobody could have predicted,” he said.
While Selmer said he speculates the four men never even made entry into the building and the explosion occurred when they opened the door, specific details remain unknown, and APS, alongside Surprise-based agencies, will continue to investigate the facility.
“It might take a little bit of time to get those answers, and we all want to know, too,” Selmer said. “But our biggest concern is our firefighters at this point. We just want to make sure they’re alright.”
APS spokeswoman Jill Hanks told Peoria Times that although the electric utility company had employees on site, none of them were injured in the incident.
Hanks described the facility as a 2-megawatt, grid-scale lithium-ion battery. As of print, the damage it sustained is still being assessed, though she said customers will not be impacted.
She compared it to the Festival Ranch battery facility in Buckeye that the company toured as part of its multi-year, clean-energy announcement in February.
“It’s an emerging technology,” she said. “This is super important to a clean-energy future, and so we’ll figure it out, we’ll learn from it and go from there.”
She added, “The investigation is obviously super important, but our first priority is the recovery of those first responders who were doing their job and came to do what they do and unfortunately were injured. We just appreciate all of them who came out there.”
To make a donation to the firefighters’ relief fund, visit pffc.org.
Peoria Times Managing Editor Connor Dziawura contributed to this report.