Explosion injures workers at plant in Georgia

Feb. 8, 2008
At least 50 people sent to hospital; U.S. chemical safety board to investigate accident

PORT WENTWORTH, Georgia -- An explosion rocked a sugar refinery in the southern state of Georgia, injuring dozens and setting the waterfront facility aglow with flames against the night sky. Firefighters still were battling the fire Friday morning, and six people were missing.

Officials had not determined what caused the explosion Thursday night but said they suspect sugar dust, which can be volatile.

"All I know is, I heard a loud boom and everything came down," said Nakishya Hill, a machine operatpr 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.

The blast was felt by residents throughout the Savannah suburb. No deaths were immediately reported, but six people remained unaccounted for hours later, said Chief Michael Berkow of the Savannah-Chatham County police.

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.

More than 50 people were taken to hospitals, some airlifted to a burn center in Augusta, 130 miles (209 kilometers) up the Savannah River, according to police and hospital officials. Several were in critical condition.

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.

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.


On the Net:

Imperial Sugar: http://www.imperialsugar.com

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