GA refinery blast: 'Like walking into hell'

The huge blast Thursday night shook homes miles away across Georgia's Savannah River, a firefighter said.
The huge blast Thursday night shook homes miles away across Georgia's Savannah River, a firefighter said.
"It's the biggest explosion I've ever seen in my life," said a local police officer.
"It's the biggest explosion I've ever seen in my life," said a local police officer.

Firefighters battled flames and rescuers searched for the missing Friday after a sugar refinery explosion sent 62 people to hospitals, nine of them severely burned, authorities said.

Six people were missing Friday after the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Georgia, exploded Thursday night -- a blast so powerful it shook homes miles across the Savannah River in neighboring South Carolina. No fatalities were reported.

"There was an explosion into the air with debris and a fireball that was probably five or six times as tall as the tallest trees here," said Lt. Alan Baker of the Port Wentworth Police Department. "It's the biggest explosion I've ever seen in my life."

Capt. Matt Stanley of the Savannah Fire Department said it was possible that sugar dust from refining process had ignited, sparking the blast.

"The managers of the refinery believe that it may have been sugar powder, when that is aerosolized, it can get ionically charged and light off with just a bit of static electricity," said Stanley. "It's very rare, but it can happen."

Investigators said they believe the disaster started in a room where workers bag sugar.

Lt. Baker and his wife Joyce Baker were at nearby City Hall when the blast "shook the ground," he told CNN's "American Morning."

Joyce Baker, who teaches first aid for the Red Cross, said she raced to the scene and pitched in.

"It was like walking into hell," she said.

"We had approximately 13 men who were coming out [of the plant], and they were burned -- third-degree burns on their upper bodies," she said. "And they were trying to sit down and the only thing that they wanted was to know where the friends were."

Sixty-two people were taken to Savannah-area hospitals, said Buzz Weiss, spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. Forty of them were treated and released; 13 were admitted; and nine were life-flighted to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta.

Ambulances and emergency workers from 12 counties had been called in to help, said Weiss.

Dr. Jay Goldstein, an emergency room doctor at Memorial Health, said many of the victims treated at the hospital were in critical condition. "We've seen people that have had burns to their hands all the way to about 80 to 90 percent of their body," he said.

The U.S. Coast Guard closed the Savannah River around the port and Coast Guard helicopters searched the water for people who may have been thrown by the blast.

Flames burned overnight and spread from a main building to other parts of the refinery, Stanley said, describing the site as resembling a "small war zone."

"The fire is not under control. It is somewhat contained," Stanley said. "It is somewhat smaller than it was earlier this evening, which is a good sign."

He said firefighters are trying to keep the fire from spreading to other parts of the facility where there are flammable materials.

The Savannah Fire Department used a tugboat to blast water onto the blaze from the Savannah River.

"Right now, what we're dealing with is a very unstable structure," said Savannah Fire Chief Charles Middleton. "The explosion did damage to a good portion of the facility."

Middleton said the damage made it difficult for fire and rescue workers to enter much of the four-story plant.

The refinery is the major employer in the riverside town just northwest of Savannah.

In October, the U.S. Department of Labor issued new inspection guidelines for workplaces that handle combustible dust particles, including sugar dust.

Plants where a lot of sugar dust is present are classified by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration as "hazardous locations," the same classification as coal preparation plants and producers of plastics, medicines and fireworks, according to the OSHA Web site.