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Three killed in blast at Arkansas blast; fumes, rainfall create problems

May 9, 1997

WEST HELENA, Ark. (AP) _ Noxious fumes drifted out of a chemical plant today, hours after heat from a smoldering bag of pesticide triggered an explosion that killed three firefighters.

The plant’s owner said the pesticides in the chemical-filled warehouse were not supposed to be explosive. The blast blew out a cinder-block wall that crushed the firemen, who had been sent to the plant to assess the danger of the smoking bag.

``They were just going to take a look at what was happening,″ said Allen Bartlo, owner of BPS Inc., which packages dry chemicals for use on farms. ``Something blew up and we have no idea what caused the explosion.″

Overnight showers created puddles of poisonous water around the plant. Emergency crews built a dirt-and-sand levee this morning to keep the rainwater from entering the nearby Mississippi River.

A second evacuation was ordered today for homes within a half-mile of the plant but was lifted soon afterward. Residents returned to their homes on Thursday after being kept away for about seven hours.

Firefighters, including some trained to handle hazardous materials, were summoned to the plant Thursday after a 27-cubic-foot bag of azinphosmethyl, a pesticide, was found smoldering, fire officials said. The explosion came quickly.

``It was just yellowish- and white-looking dust coming out of it at first,″ said Calvin Smith, who was installing a fence at a neighboring plant. ``And then, all of a sudden, it explodes. ... And all the tin was blowing off the buildings.″

State police said 17 people were injured, including 16 firefighters.

Two of the dead were full-time employees of the 13-member West Helena Fire Department and the third was a volunteer. A fourth firefighter might be missing, Mayor Riley Porter said.

``They were dedicated to their job. They wouldn’t hesitate in a heartbeat to do their job,″ said Tim Snyder, the assistant fire chief in neighboring Helena, whose units also responded.

The three men whose bodies were pulled from the rubble late Thursday: Capt. Stewart Warren, 47; Lt. Ed Hudson, 53; and Reginald Robinson, a volunteer who was in his early to mid-20s.

``These are the folks who got right in the middle and go where angels fear to tread,″ said Gov. Mike Huckabee, who traveled to West Helena after the explosion.

About 30 people sought medical help at a makeshift hospital complaining of symptoms of chemical exposure _ headaches, nausea and burning eyes, said Jan Chambers, spokeswoman for Helena Regional Medical Center.

Doctors gave firefighters and some local residents an antidote to ward off the effects of the poisons, said Dr. David Bourne of the state Health Department.

An employee at a neighboring plant said acrid smoke came pouring from the plant after the blast.

``The flames were so high _ 150 feet _ then the smoke turned black, and it was dark from then,″ said Vickie Bolden, who works at Helena Chemical. ``The fumes would burn your nose, it smelled bad, like ammonia.″

The explosion involved fungicides and other insecticides. The chemicals at the plant are packaged in different combinations to battle farm pests, said Doug Szenher of the state Pollution Control and Ecology Department.

A federal Department of Transportation guide says azinphosmethyl can be poisonous if inhaled, swallowed or absorbed through the skin and that fumes from a fire can also kill.

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