2 workers still missing following deadly refinery blast

February 11, 2008 1:39:01 PM PST
A helicopter on Monday dumped 250 gallons of river water onto a gutted sugar refinery where six workers died and two remained missing from an explosion that continued to burn more deeply than officials first suspected.

White smoke wafted from the disaster area after the drop, and the yellow helicopter headed back to the Savannah River, refilled its hopper and returned with another watery load in a scene repeated every two minutes.

One of the Imperial Sugar refinery's three 100-foot storage silos blew up late Thursday, with exploding sugar dust the likely culprit. Dozens of workers were injured. Fire crews couldn't search for the missing two because hot spots rendered areas of the plant dangerously unstable.

Sand will be used to take on the 4-day-old fire if water drops don't work, said Capt. Matt Stanley from the fire department in nearby Savannah.

Mounds of sugary sludge that poured out of two silos had solidified in places, making a sticky, concrete-like mixture that had to be cut with power tools. Search crews found the body of one of three missing workers Sunday before the search was called of at sunset for the other two.

The fire, burning at 4,000 degrees, spread deeper into the sugar silos than first imagined, complicating efforts to put it out, Port Wentworth Fire Chief Greg Long said.

"We initially thought only the top three or four feet of the product was on fire," he said.

Thermal imaging cameras were used to determine the fire reaches down as much as 10 or 12 feet. Long said firefighters hope to cool and solidify the top layer, forming an oxygen barrier to smother the fire below.

Because the fire is so hot, officials are concerned the silos may collapse. Sugar was piled about 55 feet high inside one silo. It was almost 80 feet down in the other, Long said. By early afternoon, more than 22,000 gallons of water had been dumped on the silos.

"If they were to fail and collapse, it would render the rest of the plant unsearchable," Long said.

Once the fire is out, railroad cars near the plant will be moved and debris taken away, allowing searchers to go through the last 5 percent of the plant that had not been searched, he said.

Dump trucks filled with sand, cranes and other ground emergency vehicles were parked in neat rows about 300 yards from the refinery Monday so the smoldering fire could be fought from the air. A heap of twisted, burned girders, metal and other debris was piled nearby.

"There have been no reports of any other unaccounted for employee or contract employee for Imperial Sugar," Stanley said. "So we have no reason to believe there would be any more than the original eight that were unaccounted for."

As the white smoke rose from the damaged plant beyond a line of oaks, two cadaver dogs waited to begin their grim work.

"We're conducting helicopter operations to make sure the fire is completely out," said Tracy Sergeant, who heads the Georgia Body Recovery Team. "Once the area is rendered safe, we will go in and start searching with the dogs."

Seventeen workers remained hospitalized Monday -- 16 in critical condition with severe burns -- said Beth Frits of the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta.

Jamie Downs, medical examiner for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said it could be several days until all remains are positively identified. He said dental records would have to be used.


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