Local News

At Least Three People Killed, 37 Injured In Explosion At Kinston Pharmaceutical Plant

Posted January 29, 2003
Updated October 26, 2007

— An explosion and fire erupted at the West Pharmaceutical Services plant in Kinston Wednesday afternoon, killing at least three people, injuring at least 37 and leaving the building a shattered ruin marked by flames and a column of black smoke.

Thursday morning, West Pharmaceuticals identified two of the three victims of the explosion and fire at the Kinston plant.

The victims were identified as William Gray and Faye Wilkins. The third person was identified as a contract worker employed by a cleaning service. His name has not been confirmed.

A press conference is currently under way at Lenoir Memorial Hospital in Kinston where staff is talking about patients and its response to Wednesday's explosion.

The cause was not immediately known. Greg Smith, operations chief of the Kinston Public Safety Department, said the blast occurred in a four-story area of the factory where chemicals are mixed.

"The explosion was in the back of the plant. It blew windows out of the front," he said.

West Pharmaceutical employees are asked to report to the site at 11 a.m. to be interviewed by investigators about what may have led to the explosion.

Two bodies were removed from the twisted debris of the plant, and a third body was being taken out late Wednesday, said Chief Deral Raynor of the North Lenoir Fire Department, the scene commander.

"We have a technical rescue team in there lifting some steel," said Greg Smith, operations chief of the Kinston Public Safety Department. "That victim is deceased."

Officials initially said eight people had been killed. The number later changed to two, then four. The latest tally of three was reported around 11 p.m.

"We do have fatalities," Raynor said Wednesday night. "We're unsure about the numbers."

Raynor said about 130 people were at the plant at the time of the 1:30 p.m. explosion. Officials believe all employees are accounted for, though Smith said it was still too early to tell.

Authorities also said they had no information about whether any victims had died after being taken to hospitals.

The injured victims are being treated at local hospitals and the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill. Seven patients are listed in critical condition and have been moved in to the intensive care unit.

The Red Cross set up a family service center at Immanuel Baptist Church on Airport Road.

Relatives of missing plant worker William Gray were still waiting for news late Wednesday night at the nearby church, where other factory employees were reunited with tearful families earlier in the day.

"We're just scared," sister-in-law Carolyn Epps said.

Firefighters carrying flashlights started to comb the wreckage of the explosion around 5:30 p.m. but later had to suspend that search. The huge plant continued to burn more than eight hours later, making the structure too unstable for firefighters to move around inside it.

Debris was three to four feet deep in parts of the building.

Fire crews continued to fight the fire on the ground and from above with ladder trucks. Forestry service crews worked to control a blaze sparked by debris in a nearby wooded area and to prevent it from spreading.

"The damage is catastrophic to the building," Raynor said. "The structure is so compromised that you just can't enter and walk around. The integrity is such that now the safety of firefighters is being compromised.

"You will see fires throughout the night that are going to build back up. We have a large amount of rubber burning, and it is going to continue to burn. We are doing the best we can to contain that."

Capt. Anthony Dodd, of the City of Kinston Fire Department, was injured during a recovery effort. He was taken to Lenoir Memorial Hospital for treatment of non life-threatening injuries.

The exact number of people injured was unclear as victims were transferred between several hospitals.

At least 37 people were injured, though 11 of them were treated and released, according to information from hospitals compiled by the Red Cross. At least a half-dozen critically injured people were taken to the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill.

At least 27 people were treated at Lenoir Memorial Hospital in Kinston. Of the patients still there, all are listed in stable condition Thursday morning. Of 16 treated in the emergency department, seven were transferred to Pitt Memorial Hospital.

One person was transported to Duke Medical Center in Durham. One was taken to Wayne Memorial Hospital in Goldsboro.

"We are seeing extensive burn injuries to all patients, as well as injuries to internal organs and orthopedic injuries to the extremities as a result of the massive explosion," said Dr. Cherri Hobgood of UNC Hospitals.

"One of the main challenges is this horrible weather. The patients have not only suffered a devastating injury, but many of them will be cold and chilled as a result of the weather, so that will be an added complication to their care."

The first emergency crews on the scene repeatedly rescued plant workers who were dangling from steel beams in the rear section of the building.

"They were in serious condition," Smith said. "There were third-degree burns. Some of the victims were alive when we were able to reach them."

Employee Moya Moore was in the plant when the blast occurred.

"I was walking down the hallway," he said, "when all of a sudden, I heard something hit. I thought I had hit the pole or something. The next thing I know, I was on the floor," he said. "I saw the sides of the wall falling like they were caving in," he said. "I tried to get up, I couldn't get up, so I just rolled to the side to try to hide under something."

Moore was treated and released from Lenoir Memorial Hospital for head and back injuries.

Sampson Heath, a worker who sterilized rubber for medical products, said he was on the other side of the plant when the explosion sent a plume of fire toward his work station and knocked him off his feet.

When he stood up, wires and tiles were hanging from the ceiling. He said he could hear trapped co-workers screaming for help.

"Your life did flash before your eyes," Heath said as he stood in the yard of the church getting hugs and kisses from relatives.

Duke and UNC medical helicopters, as well as dozens of ambulances and emergency vehicles, arrived quickly at the scene to transport patients. Buses were also brought in to evacuate employees.

The head of Lenoir County's emergency communications urged residents within a mile of the plant to evacuate because of the acrid smoke, which included the fumes of burning plastic.

"I am asking the community to obey and not try to come out in this area nd do the kind of things we need to do at this time because this is a serious incident," Mayor Johnnie Mosley said. "For the families and all of the employees, we need to be praying and doing whatever we can to make their position better as we go forth."

The factory employs about 225 people making syringe plungers and IV fitments, according to West Pharmaceutical's Web site. The company is Kinston's 10th largest employer.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the plant had been routinely inspected in October,

cited for numerous safety violations

and fined about $10,000. The inspection is still considered open, meaning that violations could still be added or deleted from the final record.

Juan Santos, a spokesman for state Department of Labor, said the initial fine was reduced to $9,075 in an informal settlement Jan. 8.

"We're satisfied with the company's response to the inspection we did this fall," state Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry said. "[After] a preliminary look at this particular report, we can't determine anything from it that would lead us to believe that had anything to do with what happened there [Wednesday].

Berry said she had staff members at the site who were interviewing employees from the plant to see if they could determine what may have led to the explosion.

Neighbor Lee Edwards said debris from two 800-feet-tall water towers flew in the air just after the blast.

The force of the explosion rocked nearby homes and buildings, including Parrott Academy. The private school, located less than a mile away, was evacuated after windows in about 10 classrooms were blown out from the force of the blast.

Assistant principal Hugh Pollock said one student was injured by flying glass, requiring nine stitches.

"All of our kids seemed to handle the evacuation process very quickly," Pollock said, "and realized that we needed to move out of here as quick as we could because there are a lot of chemicals still in the air that are blowing over the building."

Many of the students were taken to nearby Kinston High School, which also felt the impact.

Kinston principal Craig Hill said he and others inside the school heard a loud explosion. The school, located a quarter mile away, was put on lockdown as a precaution.

The factory is close to the

Global Transpark

, a onetime commercial airstrip now used mainly by military aircraft.

Initial reports indicated a plane crashed into the building. Christopher White, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration in Atlanta, said no aircraft were involved in the explosion.

A

statement was issued

late Wednesday afternoon by Don Morel, President and Chief Executive Officer, of West Pharmaceutical Services.

"We are obviously stunned by the news of this incident at our Kinston facility," Morel said. "Our overriding concern lies with the well-being and safety of our employees, their loved ones and the surrounding community. We are in the process of gathering information and will issue a more comprehensive statement when we have the facts to share."

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