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Levee holding poisonous puddles from river following chemical plant blast

May 10, 1997

WEST HELENA, Ark. (AP) _ A makeshift dirt-and-sand levee was holding poisoned rainwater back from the Mississippi River today after a deadly blast that ripped through a chemical packaging plant Thursday.

A smoldering bag of pesticide triggered the explosion, which left three firefighters dead and at least 17 people injured.

Noxious fumes still wafted through the air as crews built the levee Friday around BPS Inc., but by afternoon the air was declared safe.

The investigation into what caused the blast centered Friday on what ignited the 27-cubic-foot bag, about the size of a backyard garbage can.

The bag did not generate enough heat to set off the sprinklers, said Allen Bartlo, owner of BPS, which packages dry chemicals for farm use.

The chemical inside the bag, azinphosmethyl, could not have exploded unless it was heated and decomposed into flammable parts, said Ky Nichols, an Environmental Protection Agency spokesman at the scene Friday.

``We don’t know what the heat source was. We’re really kind of mystified about what caused the decomposition,″ Nichols said.

The blast knocked out a cinder-block wall, crushing the men and dispersing the smoldering chemical and others nearby.

Acrid smoke billowed from the plant after the explosion, forcing about 300 people living within a half-mile radius to leave home for about seven hours.

Overnight rain showers left puddles of poisonous water around the plant. Emergency crews put up the levee to keep the tainted water from seeping into the nearby Mississippi River.

State police said 17 people were injured, including 16 firefighters. About 30 people sought medical help for headaches, nausea and burning eyes, said Jan Chambers, spokeswoman for Helena Regional Medical Center.

Two of the dead were full-time employees of the 13-member West Helena Fire Department and the third was a volunteer. They were Capt. Stewart Warren, 47; Lt. Ed Hudson, 53; and Reginald Robinson, a volunteer who was in his 20s.

Hudson also worked at the local Wal-Mart store, which had a black wreath on its door Friday. ``He was just a very good man,″ said Tommie Ramey, a greeter at the store.

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