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Investigators Seek Cause of N.C. Blast

January 30, 2003

KINSTON, N.C. (AP) _ Investigators looking for the cause of the deadly blast at a medical-supply factory interviewed bandaged and shaken workers Thursday but said it was too dangerous to set foot in the still-smoldering ruins.

The thunderous explosion, which left three employees dead and injured 37, occurred in a part of the factory where rubber was mixed and formed into sheets. Ten people remained in critical condition. One person who had been unaccounted for was located Thursday.

About 130 people were inside the West Pharmaceutical Services factory when it was rocked by the explosion and a raging fire Wednesday afternoon.

On Thursday, agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI, the State Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board interviewed workers but did not enter the building.

North Lenoir Fire Chief Deral Raynor said a 900-square-foot hot spot remained at the back of the plant’s mixing tower where a fire, probably fueled by rubber, continued to burn under the debris. He said firefighters were staying out of the structure because it might collapse.

``Every wall has either been cracked or blown to pieces,″ he said.

Gov. Mike Easley visited the ruins and said: ``I am absolutely amazed that we didn’t have a hundred people killed.″

Some of injured had severe burns over as much as 70 percent of their bodies. Other victims had fractured bones, and one person’s arm was blown off.

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

Kevin Morgan, 30, said he escaped with some co-workers. ``You see people hollering, screaming,″ he said. ``It just seemed unreal to me.″

Tommy Howard, chief of a local volunteer fire department, was among the first to arrive. He said he and others found two workers suffering from severe burns who later died. A woman pinned under steel beams screamed for help, but it took the firefighters 10 long minutes to reach her through a maze of steel and toppled walls, Howard said.

``She died before we could get back in there,″ he said.

The cause of the explosion was a mystery because the plant kept relatively little volatile material on site, said Don Morel, chief executive of West. The company, based in Lionville, Pa., made syringe and IV equipment at the factory.

Plant employee Wayne Brown said that only a few people worked in the ``automatic compounding system″ section 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.

The state Division of Occupational Safety and Health said the plant was inspected in October and cited for 15 safety violations, seven of which were considered serious. The state average for similar facilities is less than six violations.

Morel said there was no indication the violations _ which included problems with the electrical design, wiring and portable fire extinguishers _ played a role in the explosion.

North Carolina Deputy Labor Commissioner John Johnson said the violations were unexceptional. ``They weren’t anything that would make the hair on the back of our neck stand up,″ he said.

Company executives were cheered when they told employees they would be paid at least through the end of February. Morel said West has no intention of abandoning Kinston.

``We’ve been in this community 28 years, we’ve got a skilled employee workbase,″ he said. ``If there’s any way of getting up and running quickly, we’re going to try to do it.″


On the Net:

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

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

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