On The Job - Georgia: Explosion & Fire At Sugar Refinery Kill 14 Workers


At approximately 7:15 P.M. on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008, a savage explosion ripped through the Imperial Sugar Co. refinery in Chatham County, GA. Firefighters, EMS, police and other responding rescue personnel were immediately confronted with an unusual and highly dangerous confluence of extraordinary conditions that presented them with challenges rarely encountered, contemplated or imagined.

Among the exacerbating circumstances immediately facing responders were the labyrinthical physical layout of the refinery itself, the almost 100-year-old materials used in the original construction of the plant, the extremely high burn temperature of sugar, and the subsequent, but necessary flooding of several key sectors that greatly inhibited rescue efforts.

Fourteen workers died at the refinery or subsequently in the hospital and many others were injured.

The refinery, situated on 160 acres that extend from the Coastal Highway to the Savannah River, is on Oxnard Road near Port Wentworth and several miles west of Savannah. About 12% of the refinery's 872,000 square feet was destroyed by the explosion and fire. The refinery, which does not have its own fire brigade, opened in 1917 under the ownership of French Cajun transplants and is reminiscent of a southern plantation. The warehouses are just discernible behind Spanish moss-covered oak trees. Although the plant is old, its favorable location gives it easy access to the ships and trains that transport its finished product throughout the country. The plant's function is to turn raw cane sugar into crystals sold in supermarkets under the Dixie Crystals, Holly and Imperial brands. The plant also supplies sugar and sweetener products to industrial food manufacturers.

The center of the plant where the explosion occurred is a giant, forbidding and often-confusing warren of warehouses, 100-foot-tall silos and bagging rooms interconnected by conveyor belts, elevators and narrow sheet-metal corridors with six- to eight-story buildings on either side. Access to the center of the plant, especially by large groups of people encumbered by heavy equipment, is by necessity limited and inherently dangerous. Moreover, the maze-like, often-confusing interconnecting passageways presented responders unfamiliar with the plant's layout with additional problems and challenges. The wood tongue-and-groove ceilings and hot-burning creosote, standard construction materials used when the refinery opened, were never replaced and were in effect a built-in fuel load for the fire.

Adding to the fire's intensity and creating myriad problems for firefighters and other rescuers was the 4,000-degree-Fahrenheit temperature at which the sugar in the plant burned and the resulting molecular changes due to water-induced cooling. Subsequent but necessary flooding, at times eight feet deep, not only greatly hampered rescue efforts but also severely compromised and stressed the structural integrity of the involved buildings putting the lives of firefighters and rescuers at additional risk.

Investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) subsequently determined that the explosion was caused by a cloud of sugar dust that ignited in a basement area beneath the plant's 100-foot-tall storage silos where refined sugar was loaded onto conveyor belts and transported to the packaging area. The area was equipped with large fans to suck dust particles out of the air, but investigators found enough dust there to fuel the blast. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), as little as 1/32 of an inch of dust over 5% of a room's surface is enough to cause an explosion under certain conditions. Static electricity or a spark can also trigger a detonation. Like grain, sugar is capable of spontaneous combustion and under the right circumstances is highly combustible.

Although grain-handling facilities are subject to federal standards that control the risk of dust explosions, the U.S Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) found after an outbreak of deadly dust incidents in 2003 that no inclusive federal standard exists to control the risk of dust explosions in general industry such as sugar plants. Over the past 30 years, more than 300 dust explosions have killed more than 120 workers in grain silos, sugar plants and food processing plants. The board concluded in a special report in 2006 that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) current program inadequately addresses dust-explosion hazards and it recommended OSHA issue a comprehensive industrial standard for combustible dust.

OSHA did not issue a specific response to the CSB's recommendation, but the following year instituted a national emphasis program under which sites would be inspected for various issues, including combustible dust, to make sure they comply with federal regulations, OSHA spokesman Mike Wald said. The Port Wentworth site has not been inspected as part of the new program and the last OSHA inspection of the facility was in June 2000. Wald said that no violations were found, adding that the inspection followed a complaint of an undisclosed nature. The plant's last inspection by the state Department of Agriculture took place on Oct. 30, 2007. The plant was cited for two violations, one involving an opening in a packing room area that could allow pests to enter and another relating to buckets used for packing molasses in warehouses not being properly protected.

The Port Wentworth Fire Department is a combination agency with five paid firefighters, augmented by 20 volunteers, and a paid full-time chief along with an administrative assistant.

"On Feb. 7 at 7:18 P.M., I was enjoying dinner with my wife along with a neighboring fire chief and his fiancee when our pagers went off, informing me of an explosion at the sugar refinery," Port Wentworth Fire Chief Gregory A. Long said. "As soon as I received that page, his cell phone rang and his working supervisor informed him of our page. We both left the restaurant and responded in our own command vehicles. While enroute to the scene, I attempted to make contact with my first-in units. Part of our policy is that first-arriving units always provide a scene survey upon arrival, even on medical calls. Entering the plant is accomplished by a two-lane road bordered by large oak trees on both sides. The entrance is approximately one mile in length. As you approach the plant, you enter a large employee parking lot and a security gate. Upon my arrival, I was met by a large amount of wounded, mostly being staged in the front parking lot. Several of the wounded were described as 'walking wounded' due to the fact that most suffered severe burns except where their protective equipment had been. The protective gear consisted of mainly hard hats, safety glasses and steel toed boots."

Michael Notrica, a spokesman for Memorial University Center in Savannah, said 33 people were brought there from the plant explosion. Of those, seven were treated and released and 19 were transported to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital in Augusta, 130 miles up the Savannah River. Police Lieutenant Alan Baker, one of the first responders on the scene, said some of the burned men had no skin at all and some had skin just dripping off them. At least 118 people were working inside the plant at the time of the blast. Beth Frits, a spokeswoman for the Burn Center at Doctors Hospital, said 15 victims were in critical condition. Most of them were on ventilators and three were in serious condition.

Incident Command

"This area of the employee parking lot was set up as triage for the wounded, as it allowed the ambulances access to enter the facility, load and exit through the front parking area," Long said. "We established an incident command near the security guard house and began to fill command positions. Also, as units were entering the plant area, accountability was being established. We were able to locate the plant manager and have him remain with us at the command center. As apparatus arrived and reports were received from our first-in units, sectors were established and apparatus and personnel were assigned."

Port Wentworth's first-in engines were assigned to search and rescue in the packaging house because this area was the most affected by the blast and sustained the most structural damage, the chief said. It was in this area that most of the missing workers were believed to be.

"The blast had caused the power station for the facility to shut down, thereby leaving no perimeter lights in operation," Long said. "As a Savannah Fire platform responded, it was assigned to the six-story warehouse located on the B side of the complex to engage the fire on the upper floor. Further, this area contained a 150,000-gallon diesel fuel storage tank. Intelligence reports that several large water mains were broken, rendering the fire suppression system useless. This also reduced available water pressure from the hydrants. Several river tug boats were contacted and assisted in providing water to the aerial units that were positioned along the river. To supply the aerial unit protecting the distribution warehouse, tenders from Effingham County Fire performed tender shuttles for over the next four hours, allowing fire suppression to prevent the spread of the fire from entering into this structure. Other engine companies were staged on the C side of the complex to contain the fires and prevent them from spreading into the tank farm, which is several dozen storage tanks located along a railroad yard."

Rescue efforts were hampered by the ferocity of the fire and the lava-like consistency of the burning sugar. On the Sunday following the blast, search teams had to use power tools to tear down a refinery door that was glued shut with sticky sludge that was slowly solidifying. Power tools were also used to cut the concrete-like consistency of sugary sludge that poured out of two burning silos and solidified. Strong winds coming off the Savannah River made conditions even more hazardous for crews trying to prevent the silos and plant buildings from collapsing.

On Feb. 11, a helicopter made nearly 100 water drops over the gutted silos. Chatham County Chief Pilot E. Scott Yackel flew his yellow helicopter, the same one used for mosquito control, just 10 feet above the silos. He got the water from the Savannah River and made his drops at two-minute intervals. The water helped reduce the temperature of the molten sugar to about 2,800F.

Officials were concerned the silos could collapse, creating additional problems. Williams Fire and Hazard Control, an industrial firefighting team from North Carolina, brought specialized equipment to fight the silo fires. The company has equipment that can pump up to 5,000 gpm and uses foam that can penetrate the silo walls to get chemicals inside. It was hoped that cooling and solidifying the top layer of sugar in the silos would form an oxygen barrier that would smother the fire below. Initially, it was thought that only the top three or four feet of sugar was burning. Thermal imaging cameras revealed that the fire reached down as deep as 10 to 12 feet. In one silo, sugar was piled about 55 feet high; in another it was almost 80 feet high.

Mutual Aid

"Savannah Fire responded with aerial units as they are the only department in this area with ladders that extend over seventy-five feet," Long said. "We have both mutual aid and automatic aid in place. Garden City Fire is automatic and responded with my first-in units. Pooler, Bloomingdale, Georgia Air National Guard of the 165th Tactical Air Wing stationed at the Savannah Airport and Effingham County responded as mutual aid. Southside EMS and Medstar sent several EMS units along with Effingham, Byran and Liberty counties and had four helicopters land to transport the critically injured to the Augusta Burn Center directly from the scene. Southside Fire, Thunderbolt and Tybee Island sent equipment to staging and to assist in manning our stations. Further, departments from as far away as Metter, Brunswick and Glen County also responded. Due to the size of my department, along with Garden City, Pooler Fire and Bloomingdale Fire, all available resources for the west end of Chatham County had been committed. Logistics allowed for several other agencies to respond and stage in our stations to provide coverage for our cities." The Georgia Body Recovery Team, based out of Atlanta, sent two canine search units to help find missing workers. The dogs, Madison, an Australian shepherd, and Cinco, a black German shepherd, shared dangers with their handlers.

As often happens when multiple entities respond there were glitches in radio communications.

"Several departments had just finished upgrading their radio systems and received six fire tactical channels that had been designated for use as fireground channels, by our dispatch center," Long said. "Every department had the same template on their radios, which allowed for ease of assignments. However, out-of-county units and Savannah Fire needed to share a channel for communication with incident command. Their radio system was slightly different from the other municipalities, which presented challenges in accountability."

Training plus cooperation is usually a recipe for success. Although multiple departments responded, all of them worked cohesively toward a common goal. Challenges were defined; all available assets were utilized and obstacles were overcome. Nobility of purpose does not always translate into success but in this instance, coupled with dogged, professional perseverance, it did.

"Command staff was primarily made up of the chief officers from each department with assignments being handed down to sector commanders," Long said. "While I was the incident commander for this entire event, I must state that I have never seen an incident run smoother. Every officer accepted whatever task was assigned, regardless of their rank or task."

Firefighters and other first responders are often faced with the emotionally and psychologically challenging task of searching for survivors and/or victims they know personally.

"This portion of the incident was extremely difficult, not only for myself, but for several of the firefighters who knew employees of this facility," Long said. "I have friends that work in this plant. I know the people that are over there at the church. As soon as the sun rose on Friday morning, we reassessed the facility to comprehend the extent of the damage. The planning officer called a meeting with command staff and plant personnel. We requested and received a structural engineer to accompany our search teams into the packing warehouse. This is the portion of the plant that received the most structural damage and is also the area that we were told was the last known location of the missing employees. As those areas were searched and as recoveries were made, forensic units from the Savannah Chatham Metropolitan Police Department and the medical examiner from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation responded. Further, the Georgia State Fire Marshal's Office, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Chemical Safety Board and OSHA all were kept informed of our progress. Each recovery was photographed and documented by all parties concerned. Also, our Region 5 Georgia Search and Rescue Team (GSAR) deployed for the very first time to a local emergency. These dedicated men and women conducted most of the confined space searches during this incident. Because of their efforts we located every employee and brought the missing eight home to their families."

The refinery entered the Port Wentworth Fire Department's fire district in August 2007.

"At the time of this event, several of the outlying structures had been pre-planned; however, the main portion of the plant, i.e., the packing warehouse had not been completed," Long said. "Their Tier II report had been submitted and was on file."

Major Problems Faced

"The largest problem that we encountered was when it was discovered that the sugar silos were on fire," Long explained. "Each silo - there are three - is approximately 80 feet tall, 40 feet in diameter and located in the center of a four-story structure. Needless to say, using platforms or ladders was not going to be an option. Utilizing aerial views from a local helicopter and attempting to receive thermal imaging showed that the heat was in excess of several thousand degrees. Further, attempting to locate any other fires in an open sugar silo revealed that no one had ever encountered this before. Therefore, we were 'writing the book' on how to deal with this situation."

Long continued, "In addition to the two large silos burning, we had one storage tank on fire. This we were able to control as it remained inside of its metal tank. The most common problem was being able to safely place fire suppression crews and provide an established water supply. With broken water mains inside the plant and dealing with building collapses and debris piles, actually getting to the fires proved extremely difficult. For these reasons, the fires burned for a total of seven days. This includes the silo fires. While we were able to contain several of the smaller fires in the packing area, the fact that they were in areas that we could not reach due to floor and ceiling collapses and the amount of siding left in place from the explosion. It also hampered our efforts that debris removal could not be performed in a large scale until state and federal investigators documented the area."

Lessons Learned

"The most important lesson," Long said, is that "you can run an effective, large-scale operation and successfully maintain control by using the National Incident Management System (NIMS) no matter what the size of your department. You can also take the time to establish priorities and assignments rather than just 'throwing water.' Because of the steps we took as teams, not one single injury was sustained by anyone during the entire week-long operation. We also noted that it is our responsibility to work with and get to know all of the departments within our region. When something like this happens, all the 'border wars' need to disappear. There is really no need for them in the first pace. Our training will encompass more training with other departments even if it's just meeting and reviewing equipment at each other's stations."

William Wright, a member of the CSB, said that proper upkeep would probably have prevented the explosion. Wright also said the blast added weight to the case for new safety rules that his agency recommended in 2006. Edwin Foulke Jr., the assistant labor secretary who leads OSHA, said current rules cover dust hazards and that federal inspections will be made at hundreds of plants where combustible dust is a hazard. Letters are being sent to 30,000 companies that deal with combustible dust to discuss the dangers.

In October, it was reported that the refinery is being rebuilt and that ground has been broken on three storage silos that were demolished after the fire. The new silos will have special vents designed to minimize damage from dust explosions.

MICHAEL GARLOCK is a Florida-based reporter concentrating on fire-rescue service responses to major disasters.