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Worker killed in 'violent explosion' at Newburyport pharmaceutical manufacturing company

Worker killed in Newburyport explosion identified as Jack O'Keefe
Worker killed in Newburyport explosion identified as Jack O'Keefe 02:29

NEWBURYPORT - A worker was killed in a "violent explosion" that tore apart a chemical facility in Newburyport early Thursday morning.

Firefighters were called to Seqens, a pharmaceutical manufacturing company, on Opportunity Way just before 1 a.m. When they arrived, they found an industrial-sized vat that had been inside the building was now about 30 feet away in a parking lot.

The fire department said there were five workers in the building at the time of the explosion. Four were taken to a hospital, treated and released. 

Jack O'Keefe
Jack O'Keefe was killed in an explosion at Seqens in Newburyport CBS Boston

Family and friends identified the man who died as Jack O'Keefe of Methuen, a longtime employee. O'Keefe had been missing from the time of the explosion until after 5 p.m. Thursday when first responders finally got safe access into the hazardous rubble to find him.

The explosion, which Newburyport Fire Chief Steve Bradbury called "violent," caused major structural damage to the building so firefighters and technical rescue crews weren't immediately able to go inside. The Coast Guard sent in their helicopter to help with the search.

"It's a very methodical process as the building has serious structural damage to it," Bradbury said.

Bradbury said the area where the explosion happened was an addition put on several years ago, and the roof and walls are compromised.

"It was extremely difficult amongst a lot of debris, and concerns about stuff falling down and other hazards that we had to be aware of," Bradbury said.  

The Seqens pharmaceutical manufacturing company in Newburyport after the explosion, May 4, 2023. CBS Boston

In a statement, the company said, "The entire group and its employees are extremely shocked by this accident. At this tragic moment, all our thoughts and prayers are with our friend and colleague and his family during this difficult time."

Authorities said there's no danger to people who live in the area and no concerns about the air quality. There's no word yet on what caused the explosion.

"It was crazy in the middle of the night I didn't know if something hit the house, it was a large boom," said neighbor Jeff Rudokas, whose house shook. 

I-TEAM: History of safety violations at chemical plant

A home security camera captured the explosion more than a mile away where Meaghan Williams lives with her husband Justin. "I heard him jump up and run through the house," Williams said. "He said he thought a tree had fallen through the house it was that loud."

This isn't the first fire at this facility. Three years ago, there were six explosions that tore through the roof of the building. 

"There have been a few things over the years.  Every now and then something happens," said Jim Young who works at a company next door. "I know there have been a couple of incidents.  It's right next door to us, we're concerned for their safety but also for us."

No one was hurt in the 2020 incident. Bradbury, who was the deputy fire chief at the time, said the roof is designed to blow open to relieve any pressure that builds up. At the time, the company believed it was a mechanical issue from a steam line that caused those explosions.

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