San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Irregularities Found after Fatal Gas Station Fire

A lack of oversight and some irregularities have surfaced following the explosive fire at a Shell gas station in Escazú, west of San José, that took the lives of two children Oct. 29.

Only one person at the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) is responsible for overseeing inspections of all of Costa Rica’s approximately 650 gas stations, said Oscar Porras, the head of MINAE’s General Administration of Hydrocarbons.

“One person is not sufficient to adequately monitor this country’s service stations,” Porras said this week, echoing criticisms made more than a year ago following a substantial underground oil spill in the province of Heredia, north of San José.

Porras told The Tico Times at the time that a second official was to be hired the following month (TT, June 24, 2005). For reasons not clear, no one else was ever hired.

Porras told The Tico Times this week that the department is now set to receive “six to eight more people” in the coming months, thanks in part to the change of administration earlier this year. He also said the tragic event in Escazú influenced the decision.

Porras said that though the Shell station is still being investigated following the fatal fire, it appears to be in compliance with all MINAE’s safety standards except one: having an emergency shutoff button for the gasoline. Porras denied that it would have helped in the Oct. 29 incident, however, because of how fast the flames spread.

“It is possible that there was an error in procedure in changing the filter,” Porras said. Moments before the fire, station employee Gerardo Quirós was changing a filter on one of the pumps when gas started spraying out of the machine. Investigators believe that at least one vehicle that pulled up to the pumps was still running and set off a spark that ignited the gasoline.

The two children, André González, 5, and Nicole González, 13, were in the back seat of their mother’s vehicle when the fire ignited and, in a matter of seconds, consumed the car. Their mother, Gloriana Umaña, was outside the vehicle and attempted to pull her children from the flaming car, but was unable to, possibly because they were still wearing their seatbelts.

Police and witnesses then held the hysterical Umaña back from the fire, concerned for her safety (TT, Nov. 3).

Station employee Quirós is being investigated and could face charges of involuntarily causing a disaster, which carries up to six years for every person killed or injured in the accident.

Questions have also been raised about the management of the station. Though it is a Shell station, that company gave the concession for its operation to another company. Officials are investigating whether this is legal.

The same day Shell received its concession, Feb. 28, 1997, nearly 200 other service stations were also approved for concessions – an unusually high number, according to Porras. Most worrisome, Porras continued, is that the concessions were given with very little attention to whether or not the companies receiving the concessions fulfilled all the requirements.

And why were so many concessions given at once?

“That is the question that we are all asking,” Porras said.


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