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Mysterious fire heated pesticide into deadly explosive

May 9, 1997

WEST HELENA, Ark. (AP) _ Crews built a levee out of dirt and sand around a chemical packaging plant Friday to keep poison-laden rainwater from entering the Mississippi River after an explosion killed three firefighters.

Noxious fumes continued to draft out of the plant hours after heat from a smoldering bag of pesticide triggered the blast. But officials said the air was safe by Friday afternoon.

The plant’s owner said the pesticides in the chemical-filled warehouse were not supposed to be explosive and that the 27-cubic-foot bag _ about the size of a backyard garbage can _ did not generate enough heat to set off the sprinklers.

``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.″

The explosion occurred as firefighters prepared to smother the smoldering bag with foam. It blew out a cinder-block wall, crushing the men and dispersing the pesticide and other nearby chemicals including fungicides and insecticides.

``I saw the black smoke boiling out and the firefighters rushing to the scene,″ Police Capt. Elijah Petty said. ``All I could see was them rushing toward the building and they disappeared into the smoke. It blew up. It sounded like a bomb. Boom.″

The contents of the bag, the chemical azinphosmethyl, could not have exploded unless it was heated and decomposed into flammable parts, said Ky Nichols, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spokesman at the scene Friday.

``We don’t know what the heat source was. We’re really kind of mystified about what caused the decomposition,″ Nichols said.

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. They were Capt. Stewart Warren, 47; Lt. Ed Hudson, 53; and Reginald Robinson, a volunteer who was in his 20s.

Hudson also worked at the local Wal-Mart store, which had a black wreath on its door Friday. ``He was just a very good man,″ said Tommie Ramey, a greeter at the store.

Emergency crews found a fourth helmet near the blast site and feared another casualty, but the helmet’s owner was found safe at a hospital.

Overnight showers created puddles of poison water. Mike Cunningham of the Phillips County Office of Emergency Service said crews built a levee around the plant to keep runoff from entering Mississippi River tributaries.

Fumes forced the evacuation of more than 300 people and shut the Helena Regional Medical Center until the air was declared safe Friday afternoon by the Environmental Protection Agency.

About 30 people sought medical help 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.

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. It says water that comes in contact with it can cause pollution and emit toxic vapors.

The 13-member West Helena Fire Department has no hazardous-materials unit.

``Ideally, everybody should have one, but financially, for small communities, that doesn’t happen,″ Fire Chief Pat Sensat said.