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

Michael Garlock reports on the response to a savage explosion that ripped through a sugar refinery, where firefighters and other responders faced an unusual and highly dangerous confluence of extraordinary challenges.


On The Job: GEORGIA By MICHAEL GARLOCK 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...


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On The Job: GEORGIA

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.

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