Memphis food truck explosion uncovers dangers inspectors don’t check

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The food truck industry is one of the fastest growing businesses in Memphis. The Shelby County Health Department says more than 400 permitted trucks are on the road.

Inspectors check for a number of sanitary and food-related violations, but WREG discovered one of the biggest dangers goes unchecked.

Tomazina Johnson suffered first, second and third degree burns all over her body when her food truck exploded in August 2017. She spent nine days at Regional One Hospital's burn center after having skin graft surgery.

"Right when I lit the thing, woo, nothing but fire. Balls of fire. They took my face off, took my knee off, my skin on my knee and my arm too," she said. "I think the ought to go into depth about telling people."

She didn't know propane tanks that fueled her truck could explode.

"I got like a 99 and a 100 on my inspections, so all the health department does is they just want to make sure that it's clean," Johnson said.

A check of the WREG archives shows a number of food truck fired throughout the years. In January 2017 a food truck at Winchester and Perkins in southeast Memphis went up in flames, creating a dangerous situation.

A viewer shared video of the firefighters putting out the flames. An ambulance responded, but no one was hurt. The truck burned to a crisp.

It's not just Memphis. In Miami, a food truck parked in a residential area blew up, sending debris flying. The explosion damaged nearby homes and cars. Firefighters blame a propane leak.

Another incredible video shows a fire in Portland Oregon in October 2017. A fire and explosion destroyed two food carts and ten cars. Fire crews say car tires, aerosol cans and propane tanks more likely caused the explosion.

Food trucks pack Court Square in downtown Memphis every Thursday. Health inspectors can show up at any time, but the one thing they don't check for are problems with the propane tanks.

"That's not something we look into to see if it's a leak. That would be something the fire department would have to investigate," Kasia Alexander, with the Shelby County Health Department, said. "There is an instrument that can used, similar to what the fire department uses, but we do not administer that and give that out to our inspectors at this time."

We checked with the fire department and they don't inspect the trucks at all. The ordinance regulating mobile food operations says nothing about checking for one of their biggest hazards.

"I'm not surprised being that the food truck industry is a little bit ahead of the city. We're kind of catching up. It's a phenomenon that's probably growing faster than the mandates and the policies and the regulations," food truck owner Jacqueline Johnson said.

Jacqueline relies on her propane supplier to check the connections every couple of weeks. In between refueling, she checks them by pouring dish washing liquid on the seals. She says bubbling indicates a small leak.

"You see that bubble that just came through? That means I need to tighten it up more," she said. "I don't think it would be beneficial if at some point we could have it tested, because some people aren't going to take the precautions."

Zing Zing's is no longer on the move. Johnson opened a restaurant on Waring Road. Now there's wings and soul food.

For those still rolling in food trucks, she hopes they have better luck than she did.

Food truck laws are evolving in cities across the country because of these explosions. In Denver, Colorado, city officials amended their inspections to now include checking for propane leaks. But so far, there is no move in Memphis to do anything proactive when it comes to stopping these explosions.

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