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Refinery blast: ‘Like walking into hell’

PORT WENTWORTH, Georgia (CNN) — Georgia firefighters battled flames, and rescuers searched for the missing Friday, after a massive sugar refinery explosion that was felt miles away left at least 42 people injured, authorities said.

Six people were unaccounted for after the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Georgia, exploded Thursday night — a blast so powerful it shook homes miles across the Savannah River in neighboring South Carolina. No fatalities were reported.

There was an explosion into the air with debris and a fireball that was probably five or six times as tall as the tallest trees here, said Lt. Alan Baker of the Port Wentworth Police Department. It’s the biggest explosion I’ve ever seen in my life.

Capt. Matt Stanley of the Savannah Fire Department said it was possible that sugar dust from refining process had ignited, sparking the blast. Watch Stanley describe the inferno

The managers of the refinery believe that it may have been sugar powder, when that is aerosolized, it can get ionically charged and light off with just a bit of static electricity, said Stanley. It’s very rare, but it can happen.

Investigators said they believe the disaster started in a room where workers bag sugar.

Flames from the blast continued to burn overnight from a main building to other parts of the refinery, he said, describing the site as resembling a small war zone.

The fire is not under control. It is somewhat contained, Stanley said. It is somewhat smaller than it was earlier this evening, which is a good sign.

He said firefighters are trying to keep the fire from spreading to other parts of the facility where there are flammable materials.

It was like walking into hell, said Joyce Baker, who was with her husband, a Port Wentworth police officer, at a meeting at nearby City Hall, at the time of the explosion.

The Savannah Fire Department used a tug boat to blast water onto the blaze from the Savannah River.

Right now, what we’re dealing with is a very unstable structure, said Savannah Fire Chief Charles Middleton. The explosion did damage to a good portion of the facility.

Middleton said the damage made it difficult for fire and rescue workers to enter much of the four-story plant.

The U.S. Coast Guard closed the Savannah River around the port and Coast Guard helicopters searched the water for victims who may have been thrown by the blast.

Ambulances and emergency workers from 12 counties had been called in to help at the scene, said Buzz Weiss, spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

Dr. Jay Goldstein, an emergency room doctor at Memorial Health, said many of the the victims treated through a triage area set up at the hospital were in critical condition.

We’ve seen people that have had burns to their hands all the way to about 80 to 90 percent of their body, he said.

Goldstein said some of the victims were being carried by helicopter to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Georgia — about an hour away — and other burn hospitals.

Another five workers were being treated at St. Joseph’s/Candler Hospital in Savannah, a spokeswoman there said. Two had been released by late Thursday.

The refinery is the major employer in the riverside town just northwest of Savannah.
Refinery blast: ‘Like walking into hell’ – found here.

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February 8, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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