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Officials Interview N.C. Plant Workers

January 30, 2003

KINSTON, N.C. (AP) _ Investigators sought the help of eyewitnesses Thursday for clues to the cause of an explosion and raging fire at a plastics factory that killed three people and injured 37 others.

Eleven people remained in critical condition, and officials said Thursday that another was unaccounted for.

The explosion in a 40-foot-tall section of the West Pharmaceutical Services plant Wednesday 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.

Some of the injured were still in grave danger, with severe burns over up to 70 percent of their bodies. Ten people were in critical condition at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill, spokesman Dr. Anthony Meyer said.

``A patient who is badly burned is at risk for a long time,″ Meyer said.

Other victims had broken or fractured bones, and one person’s arm was blown off.

``It was like a scene you never want to see in your life,″ said Vicky Lanier, an emergency room physician at Lenoir Memorial Hospital, where one person was in critical condition. ``It’s amazing that more of those people weren’t killed. Somebody somewhere was looking out for them.″

Company officials gave names for two of the three dead, but Gov. Mike Easley said identities had not been confirmed by the state medical examiner. One worker was unaccounted for as of midday Thursday and may be a fourth fatality, he said.

``I am absolutely amazed that we didn’t have a hundred people killed,″ Easley said after viewing the scene.

The cause of the explosion was a mystery because the plant kept relatively little volatile material on site, West chief executive officer Don Morel said Thursday. The company, based in Lionville, Pa., near Philadelphia, makes pharmaceutical delivery and medical devices.

Plant worker Wayne Brown said Thursday that only a few people work in the ``automatic compounding system″ section of the factory, where the explosion happened. There, mixing machines on an upper level create molten rubber, which is poured down to the ground level and cut into sheets as it cools, he said.

Plant workers began coming in Thursday morning to be interviewed by investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board _ a federal investigative agency similar to the National Transportation Safety Board _ and other state and federal agencies.

Many greeted each other with hugs as they entered a meeting hall at the Global Transpark airport, where the investigators had set up shop.

Nearby, firefighters trained an aerial hose on the smoldering wreckage of the building. White steam or smoke rose from the ground, though flames that had burned through the night appeared to have abated with help from morning rain.

Plant maintenance worker Kevin Morgan said he was about 50 yards away from where the blast happened. He says he heard a single explosion, as loud as a jet engine.

Morgan said the ceiling started caving in, the power went out and everything was dark. Someone nearby had a flashlight and everyone who was in there started evacuating to the parking lot.

``You see people hollering, screaming,″ he said. ``It just seemed unreal to me.″

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 flooding after Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and recent manufacturing losses.

To the applause of workers, a West vice president announced that salaries would be paid at least through the end of February. ``That will give us time to sort out what we’re going to do with resurrecting this plant or redeploying people or what,″ Rick Luzzi said.

CEO Don Morel said West Pharmaceutical has no intention of abandoning the site. ``We’ve got too many good people and too much skill set here,″ he said.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the plant was inspected in October, cited for numerous safety violations and fined about $10,000, an amount 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.

Morel said there’s no indication the violations _ including problems with its electrical systems design, wiring and portable fire extinguishers _ played any role in the explosion.

___

On the Net:

West Pharmaceutical Services: http://www.westpharma.com

City of Kinston: http://www.ci.kinston.nc.us/

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