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Death Toll Reaches Eight In Chemical Plant Blast

May 3, 1991

STERLINGTON, La. (AP) _ The death toll reached eight Thursday from a thunderous explosion at a chemical plant that is this little town’s economic life blood. Evacuated residents began returning to homes damaged by the blast.

Wednesday’s explosion also injured more than 120 people.

The death toll rose as emergency workers picking through the wreckage of the IMC Fertilizer plant discovered the bodies of four people who had been missing.

All eight people killed - seven men and one woman - were workers at the plant, including its manager, said plant operations manager Bill Patterson. He said no one else was missing.

Firefighters extinguished small fires that still were burning Thursday. State environmental officials checked air quality.

Roughly 500 to 600 of the town’s estimated 1,200 residents were evacuated immediately after the blasts but were allowed to return home Thursday night.

Highways on both sides of the town began backing up with traffic as the state Department of Environmental Quality reported no serious contamination, Police Chief Walter Kemper said.

Merchants found buildings with windows blasted out and ceilings caved in, siding ripped from houses and chunks of twisted metal littering the streets. At the plant, the explosion site was a mass of twisted metal tanks and pipes and burned-out vehicles.

Mayor James H. Rainwater worried about the economic harm the blast did to the town.

″This has really hurt our business district,″ he said. ″We don’t have a large business district, but we were really hit bad.″

One merchant, Ray Lowery, said town retailers relied heavily on commerce from the plant. He said Sterlington sits in what once was a natural gas field. But the gas played out seven or eight years ago and IMC is now the heart of the town’s economy.

About 450 people worked in the plant.

The blast damaged a complex of equipment used to manufacture nitroparaffin, a base chemical for paints, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Propane and nitric acid are used in the process.

The unit is owned by Angus Chemical of Northbrook, Ill., but was operated and manned by IMC Fertilizer, which owns two ammonia fertilizer plants at the site. The ammonia plants apparently weren’t damaged but IMCF, also headquartered in Northbrook, said they were shutting them down for a safety inspection.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was investigating the accident.

OSHA last conducted a safety inspection at the plant in 1985 and uncovered nothing significant, said Gilbert Saulter, an OSHA regional administrator in Dallas. No injury or illness rates at the plant were immediately available, he said.

An OSHA health review of the plant’s ammonia unit in 1989 uncovered three ″serious″ violations relating to a lack of fall protection on tall ladders, the absence of written procedures for the use of respirators and an improperly adjusted grinder in the machine shop.

″None of these would have contributed to this catastrophe,″ Saulter said, but added that inspectors hadn’t discovered the cause.

Patterson said workers were checking out a problem with a small compressor in the unit when they noticed a small fire and sounded an alarm.

″About 30 seconds later there was the explosion,″ he said. People eight miles away heard the first blast, which was followed by a series of smaller explosions.

Tom Unzicker, company spokesman in Northbrook, said it was uncertain when the entire fertilizer and chemical operation would be operating at full capacity again. Patterson said IMCF would set up an office in town to help people affected by the explosion.

″This definitely will hurt business in this town,″ he said.

Of the 123 injured, 22 remained hospitalized with injuries that were not believed to be life-threatening, said Sgt. Hamilton Mixon, a state police spokesman in Baton Rouge. The others were released.

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