Garner, N.C. — Police say they have found the bodies of two people missing after an explosion at the ConAgra Foods plant caved in parts of the roof, sparked fires and caused an ammonia leak.
Rescuers have a visual on the bodies but have not been able to reach them, Garner Police Chief Tom Moss said. The search continued early Wednesday for a third person still unaccounted for since the explosion.
Authorities would not identify the victims, only saying one was a woman.
About 300 workers were in the plant at 4851 Jones Sausage Road at the time of the 11:30 a.m. Tuesday blast. Many suffered from exposure to toxic fumes from ammonia leaks, and some also suffered severe burns, authorities said.
Frank McLaurin, a battalion chief with North Carolina Task Force 8 Urban Search-and-Rescue, said search teams were crawling through small spaces and would work around the clock until everyone is accounted for.
"The structure is not stable by any means, so we are just being very careful and cautious," McLaurin said.
The cause of the explosion remained unknown late Tuesday.
"What I saw (and) heard was this boom, and the ceiling start coming down, and we all start running," said Gail Ruffin, a ConAgra worker who wasn't injured. "Everyone was trying to get to the exit door. ... I was just trying to get out, and then we just (saw) people that (were) burned – blood all over them."
Thirty-eight people were taken to area hospitals, said Jeff Hammerstein, district chief for Wake County EMS. Twenty were employees who were transported immediately after the explosion, and the rest were taken later with minor injuries or after suffering from heat exhaustion outside the plant, he said.
Three firefighters also suffered from ammonia inhalation but were fine after being transported to WakeMed, Hammerstein said.
Sgt. Joe Binns of the Garner Police Department said firefighters put out the last small fire and hazardous materials teams contained an ammonia leak inside the plant by mid-Tuesday afternoon. That allowed search crews to enter the building.
"It's not just a matter of fire or any chemical exposure, but certainly with the structure collapse, there's the issue of the safety of going in," Hammerstein said.
The ammonia leak was contained and didn't pose a threat to the surrounding community, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency managers were monitoring air quality near the plant, Binns said.
Dozens injured in explosion
Four people were listed in critical condition at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, Dr. Charles Cairns said. The patients suffered burns over 40 to 60 percent of their bodies, he said.
A WakeMed spokeswoman said 24 patients were brought to the emergency department in Raleigh; all but five were treated and released. Another 13 people were taken to WakeMed Cary with minor injuries, she said.
"The injuries are fairly consistent with what you would see in an explosion (or) blast situation: broken bones, burns, contusions," WakeMed spokeswoman Debbie Laughery said.
Some patients were brought in on special ambulances called Mobile Critical Care Units, which hospital officials described as intensive care on wheels.
Eighteen patients were taken to Rex Hospital with burns and cuts, a spokeswoman said. Ten patients were discharged, seven were transferred to other hospitals and one person remained hospitalized late Tuesday for respiratory problems.
Six people were taken to Duke Raleigh Hospital, and one was taken to Duke University Hospital in Durham.
Family members of the Jaycee Burn Center patients can call 919-966-5006 for information, family members of WakeMed patients can call 919-350-5105 and family members of Rex patients can call 919-784-1525.
Plant had previous safety violations
The 425,000-square-foot plant was formerly owned by Raleigh-based GoodMark Foods and is known for making Slim Jim beef jerky products.
ConAgra spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said the company had sent a team of experts from its Omaha, Neb., headquarters to the plant to help determine the cause of the explosion.
"We are working very closely with the local authorities to investigate what was the cause of this accident," Childs said. "Our focus is on our employees, their safety and their well-being."
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents, also dispatched a team of experts to Garner to review the incident.
State and federal regulators last inspected the plant in July 2008 and found no problems. A handful of violations for were found in 2006 and 2007 regarding a lack of eye and face protection and communications about hazardous materials.
Five of eight inspections since 2003 found no violations.
In 2001, inspectors noted 34 violations, including guards for wall and floor openings. The company settled with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration by paying a $12,100 fine.
Footage from Sky 5 showed several holes in the roof of the ConAgra plant following the explosion, and seven or eight cars were smashed under part of the front of the building, which had been blown outward. Liquid could be seen flowing from pipes along the roof and inside the plant, but it was unclear whether that was water or ammonia.
ConAgra implemented its emergency plan immediately after the explosion, dumping the ammonia from lines in the plant into a settling pond, said Diana Kees, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
The state Division of Air Quality and the EPA sent managers to the plant to ensure emergency response plans and protocols for storing hazardous materials were being followed, Kees said.
Raleigh Fire Department Capt. Ian Toms, coordinator of the hazmat team, said high levels of ammonia were detected inside the plant several hours after the explosion. Ammonia levels outside the plant were negligible, he said.
Viney Aneja, a professor of air quality and environmental technology at North Carolina State University, said ammonia is a caustic substance that causes eye and skin irritation. He said it could be neutralized easily with a mild acidic solution.
Workers describe chaos in plant
"Everybody was completely off guard. Based on the ones I’ve talked to, there was no warning, no signs. It just happened very abruptly," Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams said.
ConAgra worker Leonard Spruill said he heard a loud explosion and that several of his co-workers were badly burned. Spruill suffered burns on his head, arms and legs and said he had to have his clothes cut off of him.
Spruill's wife, Imogene, said her husband told her there was a fire before the explosion.
"He said the whole half of the packing side blew up. He said he was working and (heard) a loud noise – boom, like that – (and) debris was everywhere," Imogene Spruill said. "There was fire all around him, and then it just blew up."
"My son (was) there. He just said his head (was) burning. They just poured water on him," Pecolia McLeod said. "People got burned up, and they're trying to take them out of there."
Harold Harris, who was being treated at WakeMed, said an "overwhelming boom" knocked him down in the plant.
"It blew me, knocked me back into the wall," Harris said. "When I kind of gathered myself, the lights went out, but I could see the roof just falling all around me."
More than 240 workers who weren't seriously injured were taken by bus to the Garner Senior Center, 205 E. Garner Road, where officials checked them over for any minor injuries and where anxious family members waited.
"It's the last thing on your mind, thinking that it's going to happen," said Linda Williams, whose husband was unhurt in the explosion.
Worker Janet Bryant said she thought a bomb had gone off inside the plant.
"We just heard a loud explosion, and we looked up and the door to our department blew off and debris and everything rushed in," Bryant said. "(I am) very blessed and just praying for my co-workers."
Some relatives still hadn't been reunited with workers by Tuesday evening, officials said, and they said the center would remain open for employees and their families as long as necessary.
"I believe in God, and God knows what he's doing, and I have to pray," Joyce Tomlinson said as she waited for word from a family member who works at the ConAgra plant.
Childs said the company has an employee assistance program to help injured workers and their families. ConAgra usually pays workers when a plant is shut down after an industrial accident, she said.
“Our hearts and prayers are with the families and employees who are going through this situation right now,” Childs said.
The company also plans to establish a fund for donations. The money will be available to ConAgra employees in need.
It's too early to determine when the plant might reopen, Childs said.
The state Highway Patrol blocked Jones Sausage Road between Interstate 40 and East Garner Road for several hours after the explosion, and troopers also closed several other nearby roads. The I-40 exit was reopened at about 6:30 p.m.
East Garner Middle School and East Garner Elementary School are located nearby the plant, but Wake County school district officials said they simply kept students inside. Both schools dismissed on schedule.
Binns said once all ConAgra workers have been accounted for and treated, investigators would begin trying to determine the cause of the explosion.
"From that point on, we can see what steps they had or what kinds of things were going on in the plant before this happened," he said.