6 Bodies Found Following Sugar Plant Blast
Officials Suspect Sugar Dust As Cause
POSTED: 10:00 pm EST February 7, 2008
UPDATED: 12:21 pm EST February 8, 2008
PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. -- Six bodies were found in the rubble of a sugar refinery that exploded and burned Thursday night, according to authorities.
Savannah-Chatham Police Chief Michael Berkow said rescue efforts had shifted from a rescue to a recovery operation because the building is too unstable for firefighters to enter.
About 40 workers were injured, many critically, in the blast. Of those treated at Memorial University Medical, 19 were flown to Augusta to the Joseph M. Still Burn Centers in Augusta, where 15 were reported to be in critical condition.
Hospital officials in Augusta told Channel 4 that most of the patients were on ventilators. They put out a plea for blood to assist their efforts.
Officials had not determined what caused the explosion Thursday night but said they suspect sugar dust, which can be volatile.
"There was fire all over the building," said Nakishya Hill, a machine operator who escaped from the third floor of the refinery on the Savannah River.
"All I know is, I heard a loud boom and everything came down," said Hill, who was uninjured except for blisters on her elbow. "All I could do when I got down was take off running."
The fire was partially contained early Friday, said Capt. Matthew Stanley of the Savannah Fire Department. "We have diminished it considerably, but we're still struggling to get to parts of it," he said.
The fire had been extinguished in the area where the explosion happened, but structural damage was keeping firefighters out, Stanley said.
Ninety-five to 100 people were believed to be working in that area, authorities said.
Firefighters hoped to enter the area Friday. Authorities also were talking with the military about bringing in Chinook helicopters to dump water on the fire, Stanley said.
Police Lt. Alan Baker and his wife, Joyce, told CNN they were among the first on the scene. Alan Baker said he went with a maintenance worker to turn off a gas main while his wife, a Red Cross first aid instructor, treated the injured.
"It was like walking into hell," Joyce Baker said. "We had approximately 13 men who were coming out and they were burned, third-degree burns on their upper bodies. And they were trying to sit down and the only thing that they wanted was to know where the friends were."
Some of the burned men had "no skin at all" and some had skin "just dripping off them," Baker said.
Michael Notrica, spokesman for Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah, said 33 injured people were brought there from the plant explosion Thursday night. Of those, seven were treated and released and 19 were flown to a burn center in Augusta. Seven people remained in the Savannah hospital Friday in serious or critical condition, Notrica said.
Beth Frits, a spokeswoman for the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital in Augusta, said 15 fire victims were there Friday in critical condition and three in serious condition. Officials said the 19th person sent from the Savannah hospital was en route Friday morning to the Augusta burn center.
The plant is owned by Imperial Sugar and is known in Savannah as the Dixie Crystals plant.
"A far as we know, it was a sugar dust explosion," Imperial Sugar CEO John Sheptor said. He said it happened in a storage silo where refined sugar is stored until it is packaged.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Lynn said the river was closed to ship traffic from the Port of Savannah while the river was searched for possible victims.
"It's a large facility, and there is still a significant amount of fire," said Clayton Scott, assistant director of Chatham County Emergency Management Agency. He described the refinery as covering an area the size of a Super Wal-Mart.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said Friday it is sending an investigative team to the plant.
Sugar dust is combustible, according the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration's Web site. Static electricity, sparks from metal tools or a cigarette can ignite explosions. Sugar dust is suspected of sparking a nonfatal explosion last summer at a factory in Scottsbluff, Neb., and one that killed a worker in Omaha in 1996.
Imperial Sugar, based in Sugar Land, Texas, acquired Savannah Foods & Industries, the producer of Dixie Crystals, in 1997. The acquisition doubled the size of the company, making it the largest processor and refiner of sugar in the U.S., according to the company's Web site.
Imperial markets some of the country's leading consumer brands, Imperial, Dixie Crystals and Holly, as well as supplying sugar and sweetener products to industrial food manufacturers.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press.
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02-08-2008, 12:37 PM #1
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PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. Sugar Plant BlastIf you don't do it RIGHT today, when will you have time to do it over? (Hall of Fame basketball player/coach John Wooden)
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02-08-2008, 06:20 PM #2
I was called into work last night and was sent as part of a 3 squad ( ambulance) task force on a mutual aid call requesting Paramedics and EMT's. Made a 75 mile run up I-95 from Brunswick to Savannah, but everyone there was to be transported had been taken by the time we got there. Spent about 4 hours staged and then sent home. Very sad situation, and sending prayers out to all affected by this.
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