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Crews work to clear explosives spill at Morehead City port

Posted January 12, 2010
Updated January 13, 2010

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— Nine drums filled with an explosive compound were punctured by a forklift early Tuesday as they were being unloaded at the state port in Morehead City, prompting officials to close the port.

Morehead City Mayor Jerry Jones Jr. said the 50-kilogram drums contained pentaerythritol tetranitrate. Also known as PETN, the material is used in plastic explosives and as a drug to treat heart conditions.

Morehead City port closed Morehead City a ghost town with port closed

No injuries were reported in the incident, but officials urged residents within a half-mile of the port to leave the area. Officials urged anyone who chose to remain in downtown Morehead City to stay away from windows and doors.

U.S. Highway 70, which had been closed between 4th Street in Morehead City and the high-rise bridge to Beaufort for much of the day, was reopened shortly after 5 p.m. Surrounding waterways were also reopened to boaters.

The State Ports Authority said the port would reopen at 8 a.m. Wednesday.

The Morehead City Fire Department was notified at about 4:45 a.m. of a hazardous materials situation at the port, Fire Chief Wes Lail said. Officials didn't issue a public statement about the incident until after 9 a.m., but Lail defended the nearly five-hour delay, saying emergency crews needed time to assess the situation.

"We do not want to send out false alarms and give misinformation," he said during a Tuesday afternoon news conference. "We'd rather err on the side of safety and give good information."

Lail said the PETN was in a liquid slurry form, which limited the size of the spill.

Colorless PETN crystals are used in detonating cords for industrial explosions, and the compound also was a component of the explosive that Richard Reid, the convicted "shoe bomber," used in 2001 to try to blow up an airliner. A Nigerian man charged with trying to blow up a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas told authorities he had PETN in his underwear.

"We know it's a dangerous substance. However, it is contained (at the port)," Jones said.

The Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit from the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station responded to the port to handle the PETN. Morehead City police, the Beaufort and Cherry Point fire departments, the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection also responded to the situation.

"One good thing that comes out of this is experience," Jones said. "If and when something like this happens in the future, we'll be better prepared for it."

Lt. Robert Jones of the State Ports Authority Police said a private contractor brought the PETN into the port. It was shipped from a foreign location and was to be used for commercial purposes, he said.

"Being an international port, it's not unusual to get hazardous materials coming through here," Jerry Jones said. "(Shippers) are required to notify the authorities when the product does come through, and they did that."

The state port handled 1.9 million tons of cargo in the fiscal year that ended last June, including 118 shiploads and 415 barges.

Crews spent Tuesday morning separating the shipping container and all undamaged drums of PETN from the punctured drums, Lail said. They then needed to place material around the damaged drums to prevent further leakage before they could clean up the spilled explosive material, he said.

"Each step decreases the threat," he said. "It's tedious work."

Carteret County Emergency Services Director Jo Ann Smith said first responders were able to handle the situation smoothly because of recent drills.

"We recently practiced a scenario just like we just encountered, a hazardous material spill," Smith said.

The evacuation notice and roadblocks on U.S. 70 turned Morehead City's waterfront into a ghost town. Many businesses closed to save money since customers were scarce.

"If (an evacuation) were mandatory, I would know that the risks are greater then they are, and it was worth taking off," said business owner Frank Kivett, who decided to keep his real estate office open.

Antonio Shannon, who works in a local restaurant, said he would have preferred to get the day off.

"I don't want to know anything about something's going to blow up, and I'm, like, right here by it," Shannon said with a nervous laugh.

Joey McClure, owner of Clawson's 1905 Restaurant & Pub in Beaufort, said he saw more business.

"It was almost like a hurricane part. It was a hazmat party," McClure said. "It was a busy day."

George Powell said his family was sailing from Canada to the Bahamas but had to stay in port because the Coast Guard had blocked all waterways near the port.

"The Coast Guard swooped down beside us and said it's closed (because) there is some explosive problem," Powell said.

Sal Mercogliano, a maritime historian and former Merchant Marine who now teaches at Central Carolina Community College, said it was fortunate that the PETN was in smaller drums and not one large container, which would have made an explosion more likely.

"It sounded more like an industrial accident, and unfortunately, that happens quite frequently with containers and the movement of cargo," Mercogliano said.


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  • FE Jan 13, 2010

    It would be interesting for the reporter to ask a few more questions on the relative danger of this PETN spill.

    Years ago I worked with PETN all of the time (think "det cord"). One of the nice things about PETN is that it is relatively stable...drop it on the ground, roll it around in a truck etc...and it can only be detonated with a blasting cap or similar. Heck, it does not even "burn" that well as evidenced by the Detroit bomber.

    While there was obviously some risk with having the stuff loose at the docks, with proper HazMat procedures was the public REALLY at a high danger level from explosions? Especially to shut down the entire business district near the port??

    (Also, this stuff was apparently "liquid" which may be more unstable than the solid stuff used in certain military explosives.)

    Inquiring minds would like to know!!


  • Whatthehey Jan 13, 2010

    With all the danger, inconvience, and costs created by a wayward forklift, just think what fun can be created on our coast if Governor Purdue gets her way and off-shore oil drilling is authorized. Seems like Senator Hagan has flip flopped on the issue - anyone know where she stands now?

  • passport423 Jan 13, 2010

    I totally agree with ambergail1. The statement by the fire chief who defended not raising the alarm for over 4 hours by saying "We'd rather err on the side of safety and give good information" just doesn't make sense to me. I don't understand how not notifying people that something could blow up keeps them safe.

  • Nunya123 Jan 13, 2010

    My comment was how was this accident caused by politics and you right wing idiots turned it into me saying I am pro-Obama. Again, it makes your cause look pathetic when you try to manipulate every word someone writes/says to fit your agenda. If you must know, I believe both parties are a bunch of lying theives who are backed by those that lack intelligence. I'll take a true moderate that uses common sense and does what is best for the country any day of the week, but unfortunately those really don't exist.

  • WHEEL Jan 13, 2010

    Looks like the Port Authority should hire someone who knows how to drive a fork lift.

  • chfdcpt Jan 12, 2010

    For those of you surprised about this material being at our port, how do you think most goods get into this country?

    Due to safety regulations that cover hazardous materials, explosives have to be shipped in a certain packaging and in a certain way. If the material is packaged in such way that you have lets say 5 barrels to a pallet, you cannot separate them during shipping. It could have been that the container tipped over or something else.

    And once the materials are off loaded from the ships, how do you think they get to our stores? By train and truck.

    The story should have been that due to the immediate actions of the crew and the responders, the danger was mitigated. Of course, if it is not sensational, why bother reporting it?

  • smcallah Jan 12, 2010

    Wow, this is really happening, huh? An accident with some shipping containers happens and it turns into something to blame a politician for?

    Do you know how it makes your political stand look when you try to link something like this to someone else's political stand? Not to mention what it says about your stand when you say the guy is a Muslim. Holy, holy, holy cow. What has my United States become?

  • cwood3 Jan 12, 2010

    HAy guys-those dummies that voted for Obama want to say this has nothing to do with him. They will not admit they made a poor choice with their vote.

    WE need to be in prayer that we can change COngress enough in 2010 so he cannot get any more of has horrible policies thru Congress.

    If this happens, he will try and continue thru decree or using old aws like he has done with EPA. Looks like Cap and Trade will not pass-so they just jack up the Clean Air Act and press the changes they want that way.

    Concerning terrorism, he's clueless. Foreign policy is a pain in the a.. for him-takes time away from ruining America right hear at home.

    Pray for America-we need it.

  • HanginTough Jan 12, 2010

    It has to do with the president (small letters) because he is done an apalling job at responding to the near terrorist diaster over Christmas. God forbid return early from his vacation. Oh wait he prays to Allah...mmmmmm....soft on terror but has nor problem hijacking WORKING people with every kind of tax known to man. Terrorists have infiltrated every aspect of our everyday lives...wake up...

  • Clarksa54 Jan 12, 2010

    "Who knew MC port was used for explosives"

    The military uses this port all the time...I'm pretty sure they have explosives.