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Explosion at casino kills two workers

WORLEY – Two Coeur d’Alene Casino maintenance workers died Thursday morning in an explosion and fire in a large shipping container that may have been used to store fireworks.

Donald S. Hanson, 56, of Fairfield, Wash., and Richard E. Stokes, 49, of Rockford, Wash., are missing and presumed dead, according to the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department.

Sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger said the men appear to be victims of “a tragic accident,” but the cause of the explosion and subsequent fire was not determined. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is assisting in the investigation.

Wolfinger said an autopsy will be performed next week, and dental records will be used to positively identify both victims.

There was no doubt, though, for the friends and family of Stokes and Hanson.

“There’s not a person around who didn’t like him,” Carole Beck said of her brother, Stokes. “He was the center of attention the minute he walked through the door.”

Stokes, an avid guitar player, graduated from West Valley High School in 1975. He had worked as a carpenter and had been employed at the casino for about five or six years. Last year, he had been the casino employee of the year, Beck said.

She and other family members had been planning Stokes’ 50th birthday celebration next month. On Thursday night, they gathered at his house in Rockford and played Pink Floyd.

“Nobody was singing. That was Rich’s job,” his sister said.

Ron Poach, the retired head of maintenance at the casino, knew Hanson for eight years and handpicked him as his second-in-command.

“Don was always busy. I said, ‘That’s the guy I want,’ ” he recalled saying after watching Hanson at work.

Although the cause of the explosion has not been determined, Poach said he thought fireworks could be a factor. “That is the only thing in those containers that would blow up,” Poach said.

Authorities received a 911 call about 8:43 a.m. reporting a fire and explosion in the metal container about 300 yards from the northwest corner of the casino hotel. Fire crews arrived to find the fire had spread to a nearby pickup truck, which was used by the two workers and owned by the casino, Wolfinger said.

Firefighters discovered the victims inside the shipping container after extinguishing the flames.

The casino, owned by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, employs about 800. It was not evacuated, and casino operations continued as normal.

Later Thursday, the tribe announced that fireworks shows planned for Sunday and Tuesday were canceled out of respect for the victims. Hanson and Stokes were not members of the tribe.

“We are family here,” acting casino CEO Laura Stensgar-Mokry said in a press release. “We’ve lost two men who were highly valuable employees. More than that, we have lost two highly valued friends and loved ones.”

The tribe initially told reporters that a car had caught fire near a maintenance area at the casino. It wasn’t until later in the morning that tribal Police Chief Keith Hutcheson said that a container and a truck had burned. Later, the Sheriff’s Department confirmed that two people were killed.

Tribal spokesman Quanah Spencer said there was a lot of sadness and confusion among employees on Thursday.

“People are wondering what happened or why,” he said.

It wasn’t until late afternoon that investigators got inside the burned shipping container, one of 18 portable storage units sitting side by side on the casino grounds.

“It’s so hot they couldn’t get inside to investigate,” Wolfinger said Thursday afternoon. “It’s still smoking.”

Wolfinger said there appeared to be a variety of things stored inside the burned container, including light fixtures and old gaming machines. He said it wasn’t yet known whether fireworks were being stored in the container.

Hutcheson said the fire didn’t appear to be the result of arson or criminal activity.