Local News

Chemical Dust Cloud Could Be To Blame In Kinston Plant Explosion

Posted January 31, 2003

— According to investigators, the massive explosion at a medical-supply factory in Kinston Wednesday may have been caused by an ignitable dust cloud.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board came up with the theory after federal investigators interviewed more than a hundred witnesses at the West Pharmaceutical Services Wednesday. Members of the Board issued a release at a press conference Friday morning that repeated their theory.

According to investigators at the scene Thursday night, the blast happened in a part of the plant where rubber was mixed and formed into sheets. Damage has been estimated at $150 million.

Dr. Andrea Taylor of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said Thursday that investigators are still searching for the potential cause of the fire, which killed at least three people and injured 37 others.

The explosion in a 40-foot-tall section of the West Pharmaceutical Services plant Wednesday sent flames and debris shooting into the air, touching off fires in the surrounding woods and shaking homes for miles.

Plant worker Wayne Brown said Thursday that only a few people work in the "automatic compounding system" section where the explosion occurred. The factory is in two sections called the ACS plant and the Kinston plant, where the sheet rubber is cut into smaller pieces for syringe plungers and intravenous fittings, he said.

Brown said two mixing machines on the top level of the ACS plant are used to create the molten rubber, which is poured down to the ground level, where two mills cut it into sheets.

One person is required to run each machine, meaning it's possible only four people were in the area at the time, according to Brown, who wasn't at the site Wednesday afternoon.

North Lenoir Fire Chief Deral Raynor said a 900-square-foot hot spot remained at the back of the plant's mixing tower where a fire, probably fueled by rubber, continued to burn under the debris.

Raynor said firefighters were staying out of the structure because it might collapse.

The Chief Executive Officer Of West Pharmaceuticals, Don Morel, said the cause of the explosion is a mystery because the plant keeps relatively little volatile material on-site.

"They're present in very, very small quantities here," Morel said.

Asked about a possible criminal cause, Morel said "there's nothing to indicate that."

Plant maintenance worker Kevin Morgan said he was about 50 yards away from where the blast occurred. He said he heard a single explosion, as loud as a jet engine.

Morgan said the ceiling started caving in, the power went out and everything was dark. Someone nearby had a flashlight, and everyone who was in there started evacuating to the parking lot.

"You see people hollering, screaming," he said. "It just seemed unreal to me."

Three People Confirmed Dead; 37 Injured

Officials say the fire killed at least three people and injured 37 others. Those killed were identified as Faye Wilkins, 50; William Gray, 51; and James Byrd, 60.

Wilkins' husband, Jeff, described his wife as a loving woman.

"She was a good woman, hard-working," he said. "If anyone had a bad thing to say about her, I never heard it. She was just one of those type of people."

About 130 people were in the plant at the time. By early Thursday, the company had accounted for dozens who were thought missing.

"I am absolutely amazed that we didn't have 100 people killed," Gov. Mike Easley said after viewing the scene.

"It was like a scene you never want to see in your life," said Dr. Vicky Lanier, a

Lenoir Memorial Hospital

emergency physician. "It's amazing that more of those people weren't killed. Somebody somewhere was looking out for them."

Some of the injured were still in danger, with severe burns over up to 70 percent of their bodies. Some had severely broken or fractured bones, and one person's arm was blown off, doctors said Thursday.

"It was a tremendous blast," said Jeffrey Kiefer, director of the hospital's emergency room. "There was a large thermal burn population. There was blunt trauma. There were a tremendous number of people trying to get out and breathing superheated air."

Some of the 10 critically injured people at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill were still at risk of dying due to their severe burns, Meyer said.

Meyer said the hospital is treating nine men and a woman who range in age from 29 to 62. About half had burns covering 20 percent to less than 50 percent of their bodies while the rest had burns over 50 percent to 70 percent of their bodies.

Two of the victims have broken arms, and others had internal injuries, including a ruptured spleen. One patient could lose his arm, Meyer said.

Of three victims taken to Lenoir Memorial Hospital, two were in good condition Friday, and one was in fair condition.

Three victims were taken to Pitt Memorial Hospital. One was in fair condition Friday, and one was expected to be discharged Friday. The other was discharged Thursday.

There were no victims at Wayne Memorial Hospital on Friday. One had been taken there but was released.

All 10 victims who were taken to UNC were still in critical condition on Friday.

Plant Workers, Community React To Fatal Explosion, Fire

Plant workers began returning to the site Thursday morning to talk to investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board -- a federal investigative agency similar to the National Transportation Safety Board -- and other state and federal agencies.

Many greeted each other with hugs as they entered a hall at the Global Transpark airport. They have varying accounts of the deadly explosion and fire.

"I remember looking out the corner of my eye, and I heard a pop, and I saw debris coming toward me," worker Eddie Gray said.

Joseph Moore, an 18-year veteran molder, was working near the rear door when the explosion occurred. He was struck on the head by ceiling tiles and other debris, but wasn't injured.

"I just shook that off, and grabbed somebody and got out as fast as I could," he said at Immanuel Baptist Church, where factory workers went to meet their families.

"It almost felt like an earthquake was taking place," said Hugh Pollock, headmaster of nearby Arendell Parrott Academy.

Greg Smith, operations chief of the Kinston Public Safety Department, said it was hard to measure the scope of the disaster.

"The damage is catastrophic to the building," he said. "The structure is so compromised that you just can't enter and walk around."

He said rubble -- mostly chunks of concrete block and metal shards -- was knee-deep in parts of the plant.

Sen. John Edwards also went to the scene to look at the damage.

"We wanted to be certain that these families, these workers, this community understood that we are with them, and we embrace them," Edwards said. "We will go through this tragedy and ordeal with them every step of the way."

Some employees said they are still in shock over the incident.

"I don't know," said employee Richard Tyson. "It was just unreal. I was in Vietnam, and I can't compare Vietnam to this."

Many in the Kinston community

are helping those affected

in the incident.

A blood drive was held Thursday at a local mall with people across North Carolina wanting to donate blood. Another blood drive is scheduled for Sunday at the Trinity Methodist Church from noon to 6 p.m.

Radio station WRNS has asked for donations and raised more than $52,000 by Thursday. Officials said one man even donated $5,000. If you are interested in making donations, you are asked to call

(252) 522-4141

.

The Kinston Chamber of Commerce and the United Way have created a fund for the workers. West Pharmaceutical was the 10th largest private employer in the town with 255 employees. The city has offered the company office and storage space until it can get back on its feet.

West Pharmaceutical told employees that they would recieve full pay through the end of February. The company had not decided whether it would rebuild in Kinston , but said it will help relocate employees.

Investigators Look At Safety Records Of Plant

West Pharmaceutical Services Inc., based in Lionville, Pa., near Philadelphia, makes pharmaceutical delivery and medical devices.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the plant was inspected in October, cited for numerous safety violations and fined about $10,000, which was reduced to about $9,000 early this month.

Since 1993, OSHA has inspected 443 similar facilities and found an average of nearly six violations per site, compared with 15 violations at West Pharmaceutical.

The federal agency's review could take from six months to a year. The FBI, State Bureau of Investigation, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other agencies also sent investigators.

The factory employs about 255 people in the city of 25,000 about 70 miles southeast of Raleigh. Its destruction was yet another blow to a city still recovering from floodwaters that swamped it after Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and recent manufacturing losses.

Morel also said there's no indication that recent federal safety violations found at the plant -- including problems with its electrical systems design, wiring, and portable fire extinguishers -- played any role in the explosion.

For the present, however, the focus should be on the plant's workers, their families and the community, Easley said.

"They are shell-shocked," he said. "We will worry about those violations later."

North Carolina was also the site of one of the nation's worst workplace disasters: Twenty-four employees and a delivery man died and 56 people were injured in a 1991 fire sparked when hydraulic fluid from a conveyor belt sprayed over a gas-fired chicken fryer at Roe's Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet.

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