JAN. 30–KINSTON, N.C.–Investigators sought the help of eyewitnesses for clues to the cause of an explosion and raging fire at a medical device factory that killed three people and injured 37 others.
Ten people remained in critical condition early Thursday.
The explosion in a four-story chemical mixing area of the West Pharmaceutical Services plant Wednesday (Jan. 29) sent flames and debris shooting into the air, touching off fires in the surrounding woods and shaking homes for miles. About 130 people were in the plant at the time, and by early Thursday, the company had accounted for dozens that were thought missing.
Some of the injured had second- and third-degree burns over up to 60 percent of their bodies, and one person had his arm blown off, doctors said.
”It was like a scene you never want to see in your life,” Lenoir Memorial Hospital emergency room physician Vicky Lanier told The Associated Press. ”It’s amazing that more of those people weren’t killed. Somebody somewhere was looking out for them.”
West chief executive officer Don Morel said that the cause of the explosion is a mystery because the plant, which makes syringe plungers and IV fittings, keeps relatively little volatile material on site.
”They’re present in very, very small quantities here,” Morel said. Asked about a possible criminal cause, he said ”there’s nothing to indicate that.”
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board a federal investigative agency similar to the National Transportation Safety Board asked plant workers to return to the scene Thursday to talk to investigators. The agency’s review could take from six months to a year.
The FBI, State Bureau of Investigation, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other agencies also sent investigators.
Morel also said there’s no indication that recent federal safety violations found at the plant including problems with its electrical systems design, wiring, and portable fire extinguishers played any role in the explosion.
Joseph Moore, an 18-year veteran molder, was working near the rear door when the explosion happened. He was struck on the head by ceiling tiles and other debris, but wasn’t injured.
”I just shook that off, and grabbed somebody and got out as fast as I could,” he said at Immanuel Baptist Church, where workers went to meet their families.
Greg Smith, operations chief of the Kinston Public Safety Department, said it was hard to measure the scope of the disaster. ”The damage is catastrophic to the building. The structure is so compromised that you just can’t enter and walk around.”
He said rubble mostly chunks of concrete block and metal shards was knee-deep in parts of the plant.
Eleven of the people injured were treated and released, according to hospital records compiled by the Red Cross. Other victims were scattered among area hospitals, and 10 critically injured people were taken to the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill.
Company officials identified two of the dead as William Gray and Faye Wilkins, no ages or hometowns given. The third person was a contract worker, whose name was not immediately confirmed.
West Pharmaceutical Services Inc., based in Lionville, Pa., near Philadelphia, makes pharmaceutical delivery and medical devices.
The factory employs about 255 people in this city of 25,000 about 70 miles southeast of Raleigh. Its destruction was yet another blow to a city still recovering from floodwaters that swamped it after Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and recent manufacturing losses.
”We’ve been in this community 28 years. We’ve got a skilled employee work base,” Morel said. ” If there’s any way to get up and running quickly, we’re going to try to do it.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the plant was inspected in October, cited for numerous safety violations and fined about $10,000, which was reduced to about $9,000 early this month.
Since 1993, OSHA has inspected 443 similar facilities and found an average of nearly six violations per site, compared with 15 violations at West Pharmaceutical.
North Carolina is the site of one of the nation’s worst workplace disasters: Twenty-four employees and a delivery man died and 56 people were injured in a 1991 fire sparked when hydraulic fluid from a conveyor belt sprayed over a gas-fired chicken fryer at Roe’s Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet.