SAVANNAH, Ga. -- Garden City deputy chief Roy Howard had just mounted a camera onto his firefighting helmet the very day of the tragedy. Today, he talked with us about that night, not knowing hours after responding on February 7, 2008, his helmet camera would capture one of the biggest disasters in Chatham County history.
Sirens from the fire truck wailed as Howard and six other firefighters raced to the scene. The inferno could be seen from miles away: Imperial Sugar was exploding in a ball of flames.
Dispatchers work frantically to get as many first responders to the scene as they can. "Engine 43, Engine 44, we're in route to the sugar refinery," can be heard on the radio.
Now inside the plant, Howard was getting his first look at what used to be the refinery. "You could see a glow in the building, in the silo area, we could see a large glow, so you knew it was fire," he remembered. "You knew it was going to be pretty bad when we got there."
It was close to catastrophic. Balls of fire exploding out the sides of the refinery, flames so bright, they light up the night sky. Howard has never seen anything like it. "Not to this magnitude, not to this level of fire," he told us.
"Ashley, let's take it this way. Hard hat. This ain't good, baby," Howard exclaimed to this partner, firefighter Ashley Hazard. He was right, a hellish inferno met him inside.
The destruction was massive. Fire burned through what walls were left standing and had engulfed the second and third floors of the packaging facility. Part of the building had collapsed and the ceilings were caved in, making it hard for Howard and Hazard to find their way. "Watch out for power lines," he yelled. "Look out fellas! Just keep a visual of each other, alright? You all go that way, we'll go this way. Just keep a visual of each other."
And the fire wasn't the only concern. "There were explosions going on everywhere. Propane tanks, fuel tanks, acetylene tanks from welding and construction, everything like that," he said.
Falling debris, burning embers and steel, rained down on Howard. The roof was gone and the structure unstable. Even so, Howard pushed forward. "That was our primary goal," he recalled. "The building could burn down, as long as we got the people out."
Firefighters had to work fast because beyond those flames, workers remained trapped, unable to find their way out. Minutes after he got there, Howard found his first victim. "We're going to get you out of here in just a second, all right? All right buddy? Anybody else up there? Stick with me," he said to the burn victim. "We're going to take you out of here. I'm going to take you with me right now."
Those images we will not show, out of respect for the families.
One by one, Howard and other first responders ran back into the burning buildings, looking for more survivors. The rescuers reach the outside of the break room, where more victims are trapped, but Howard has to pull back. "It was completely collapsed and on fire. So it was immediate when that happened," he told us. "The floor is blown up and over and there's a lot of fire in the room."
Howard pulled two victims out of the fire that night. Sadly, neither one of them survived. "They were very bad, some of the worst burn injuries I've ever seen," he said.
He and his team continued their search for five hours or more, until the structure was just too unstable. For him, other emergency personnel and survivors, like Shameir Frasier, it's a night they will never forget. "I just remember cleaning up. And then all of the sudden, there was a big blast. And it threw me ten feet across the room," said Shameir. "I looked down at my hands and my fingers were hanging off the bone."
Burn survivors are slowly coming home and coming to grips with the recovery that's still ahead. On Tuesday starting on THE News at 5:00 in an exclusive interview, we'll hear more from one Imperial Sugar survivor who faces a long road ahead, but says the explosion actually changed him for the better in the second part of our series, Imperial Sugar: The Road to Recovery.
Republished with permission of WTOC-TV.