At Least 6 Dead In Sugar Refinery Blast

The burned and twisted super structure near the blast area at Imperial Sugar Company plant, Friday, Feb. 8, 2008, in Port Wentworth, Ga. is now the site of a recovery for missing workers, after an explosion that ripped apart the plant last night on the Savannah River.
AP Photo/Richard Burkhart
The state's top elected fire official said search crews recovered another body Sunday from a sugar refinery devastated by a massive explosion, raising the number of confirmed deaths to six.

Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John Oxendine said crews removed the body from the debris of the Imperial Sugar refinery shortly before ending search operations at sunset. He told The Associated Press he got the news from Port Wentworth Fire Chief Greg Long.

Oxendine said, "The body was found in the final sweep. It is in the custody of the medical examiner."

There were still two more workers missing in the smoldering remnants of the plant that exploded last week, sending dozens of workers to the hospital with burns and other injuries.

Officials stopped the search at sunset today. They had searched most of the plant, but had not yet searched a part of the refinery complex that was still burning and where the buildings were dangerously unstable.

Long said earlier that sugar still burning in two of the refinery's three badly damaged, 100-foot storage silos threatened to weaken the towering structures to the point of collapsing if the fire wasn't extinguished soon. He said firefighters hoped to smother the silo fires tomorrow by using construction cranes to dump sand into silos.

Mounds of sugary sludge pouring out of the silos Sunday was solidifying, creating another obstacle to the recovery efforts. A firefighter said his search team had to use power tools to tear down a door glued shut by sticky sludge.

"As you've got sugar that's crystalizing and running down the chutes, it's like concrete," Savannah-Chatham County police Sgt. Mike Wilson said.

Strong wind coming off the Savannah River made conditions even more hazardous for crews trying to prevent the silos and plant buildings from collapsing, Stanley said earlier.

"We have a very windy day and a very weak structure," said Savannah Fire Department Capt. Matt Stanley, spokesman for local firefighters at the scene.

Families and co-workers continued to wait anxiously for identities of the six dead and the fate of the two men still missing.

Investigators have asked families for medical and dental records and any information about specific medical conditions, broken bones or surgeries the workers may have had to help identify the bodies, said Savannah-Chatham County police Detective Josh Hunt.

"Unfortunately, due to the severity of this disaster, it's going to be a difficult conclusion to reach," he said.

Families and friends also desperately hoped for any sign of recovery among the worst injured in the explosion and fire at the refinery. Seventeen workers remained hospitalized Sunday in critical condition with severe burns. Three others were released Sunday, said Beth Frits of the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta.

"It's just hours of waiting right now," said Hallie Capers, whose two nephews suffered horrific burns and are in critical condition at a burn center in Augusta, 130 miles up the Savannah River.

"We pray and hope that when we do get some news, it'll be good news," he said.

Good news was scarce as firefighters pulled the fifth body from the Imperial Sugar refinery, outside Savannah.

Fire Chief Greg Long said the body was found near the plant's three 80-foot storage silos, one of which ignited like a bomb during the night shift Thursday.

The blast and fire left much of the massive plant dangerously unstable, and crews had to shore up the sagging upper floors in a four-story building Saturday before resuming searching for the missing men.

Firefighters had all but extinguished the fire that had raged in the refinery since the explosion.

Officials clung to slim hope that the missing men could be found alive, Long said.

"We operate on the policy that everyone is alive until we get to them," he said.

The search was halted at sunset because the debris-strewn refinery remained too hazardous for nighttime searches.

Family members of the dead and missing, hugged and wept outside a Catholic church near the plant where they have gotten daily briefings from emergency officials.

Plant employees left a meeting with company officials in a somber mood.

A worried Douglas Milton, who works in the packaging area that took the brunt of the blast, said he's tried unsuccessfully to reach several co-workers in the plant at the time of the explosion.

"Some guys on my floor, I haven't heard anything about them," said Milton, 37, who has worked at the refinery for seven years. "I've been calling a lot of their cell phone numbers, but I'm not getting any answers."

Refinery employee Sam Boyd was on the Thursday night schedule, but traded shifts with a friend. When he heard of the fire, he told CBS News correspondent Kelly Cobiella that he went straight to the plant.

"The images are still there, going through my mind," he told her.

"What kind of images?" she asked.

"Burns. Friends. Family. You know, I consider these people my family."

John Calvin Bulter Jr. and his younger brother, Jamie, were both badly burned as the explosion tore through the plant while more than 100 employees worked inside on the night shift.

Their uncle, Hallie Capers, said he was stunned when he first saw them Saturday at the Joseph M. Still burn center in Augusta.

Their heads and hands were wrapped in bandages covering third-degree burns and they were in medically induced comas.

"It's just shocking to me to really see it, to walk in and see them like that - how bad they were, their faces, hands, arms, their whole bodies," said Capers, a Baptist minister from Hampton, S.C.

He said he stood beside his nephews, said a prayer for them and asked them how they were doing, though he knew neither could respond.

"They're going to remain in critical condition for a period of time just because of the depth of the burns," Mullins said. "They could be in the hospital for six-plus months."

One of the critically injured, 49-year-old Gene Daniel Bryan Jr., moved his head Sunday in response to relatives, even though he was in a medically induced coma, said his sister, Penny Daley.

Bryan, a supervisor, led several of his employees to an exit but they had to flee down a staircase that was engulfed in flames, Daley said in a telephone interview.

"It's hard to say it makes it all worth it, but I'm just glad to say he was able to help somebody," Daley said.

Imperial Sugar was one of the largest and oldest employers in this city of 5,000. The vast refinery was a network of warehouses, silos and buildings eight stories tall connected by corridors of sheet metal.

Investigators with the Georgia Fire Marshal's office, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board began arriving Saturday to determine the cause of the explosion.

Imperial President and CEO John Sheptor has said sugar dust in a silo used to store refined sugar before packaging likely ignited like gunpowder. Sugar dust can be combustible if it's too dry and builds up a static electric charge.

Workplace disasters involving combustible dust have been a concern for federal safety officials for years.

In a November 2006 report, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which investigates industrial chemical accidents, recommended that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issue a comprehensive combustible dust standard for general industry.

Cobiella reports that a buildup as thin as a dime can build a static charge and explode on its own, setting off a chain of explosions and fires throughout a factory.

"It's a very sneaky hazard, it's insidious," the Chemical Safety Board's Stephen Selk told CBS News adding, "There is no standard for general industry with respect to dust."

In a November 2006 report, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which investigates industrial chemical accidents, recommended that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issue a comprehensive combustible dust standard for general industry.

OSHA did not issue a specific standard in response to CSB's recommendation, but the following year instituted a national emphasis program under which sites would be inspected for various issues, including combustible dust, to make sure they were in compliance with federal regulations, OSHA spokesman Mike Wald said.

The Port Wentworth site has not been inspected as part of that new program, Wald said. He said the last OSHA inspection of the facility was in June 2000. No violations were found, Wald said, adding that the inspection followed a complaint. He didn't have details on who made the complaint or what it involved.

The plant's last inspection by the state Department of Agriculture was Oct. 30, 2007. Records show it was cited for two violations, one involving an opening in a packing room area that could allow for pests to enter and another related to buckets used for packing molasses in a warehouse not being properly protected.

Company officials have refused to speculate on when the plant might reopen, saying structural engineers needed to examine the damage.

Sheptor said Saturday the company will continue to pay employees for the time being, but would not say for how long.

More than 300 dust explosions have killed more than 120 works in grain silos, sugar plants and food processing plants over the past three decades. Most are preventable by removing fine dust as it builds up, experts say.