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Blast rocks city; hospital evacuated

May 8, 1997

WEST HELENA, Ark. (AP) _ An explosion rocked a chemical packaging plant near the Mississippi River on Thursday and three firefighters were killed battling a pesticide-fueled blaze that followed.

Sixteen people were injured in the explosion at BPS Inc., which packages agricultural pesticides and herbicides, state police spokesman Wayne Jordan said. The area of the explosion was inaccessible hours after the fire and Jordan said the number of casualties could rise.

A smoldering bag of pesticide caught fire and triggered the explosion shortly after 1 p.m., the state Office of Emergency Services said.

``We saw white smoke, heard an explosion that sounded like a sound boom, when an airplane breaks the barrier, and then we saw a lot of fire,″ said Vickie Bolden, who works at Helena Chemical a quarter-mile from BPS.

``The flames were so high _ 150 feet, then the smoke turned black, and it was dark from then,″ she said. ``The fumes would burn your nose, it smelled bad, like ammonia, where it would take your breath.″

The chemicals involved were azinphosmethyl, methyomyl and thiophante, all considered poisonous, according to Becky Allison, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Pollution Control and Ecology.

Doctors were giving firefighters and local residents atropine, an antidote to ward off the effects of the poisons, said Dr. David Bourne of the state Department of Health. The shots would be required every half-hour as long as exposure to the fumes continued, he said.

Smoke billowed above the plant, forced the evacuation of a hospital about a mile away and drifted southeast across the river into Mississippi 60 miles south of Memphis, Tenn.

The Helena Regional Medical Center was evacuated. Some of its 44 patients and 150 employees were taken to a community college campus in town and others were heading to a hospital in Clarksdale, Miss., a half-hour away.

Hospital spokeswoman Jan Chambers said the explosion was felt throughout her building.

``It was like a thunderbolt that landed outside the building,″ she said. ``It smells pitiful. It’s a strong odor. Very strong.″

The industrial park where the plant is located also was evacuated and others in Helena and West Helena, with populations totaling about 18,000, were told to stay inside and shut their windows and doors.

``We haven’t left our building. They’ve told everyone basically to get inside,″ Nota Johnson of the Helena Chamber of Commerce said.

The Lady Luck and Country casinos across the river in Lula, Miss., considered shutting their doors but decided to stay open. Winds carried the worst of the fumes south of the casino complex.

Azinphosmethyl is an insecticide that is more toxic to insects than it is to humans and thiophante is a fungicide used to control parasitic worms in animals, said Donald R. Bobbitt, a professor of chemistry at University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He had no information on methyomyl.