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Crews work to clear explosives spill at Morehead City port

PETN, the same powerful explosive used by the notorious "shoe bomber," was in nine drums that were punctured at the Morehead City port, prompting officials to close the area.

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MOREHEAD CITY, N.C. — 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.

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.