Burning Sugar Slows Ga. Refinery Search

February 10, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
Sugar that was still burning three days after a refinery explosion killed at least five people hampered the search Sunday for three other workers missing since the blast leveled portions of the plant.Crews used construction cranes to shore up three badly damaged, 80-foot storage silos that rescue workers want to search for the missing men. One of the silos blew up late Thursday, possibly after combustible dust ignited.

Mounds of sugary sludge pouring out of the silos Sunday was solidifying, though, creating another obstacle to the recovery efforts.

"You've got three silos down there that are still burning, you've got sugar still burning," said Sgt. Mike Wilson of Savannah-Chatham County police. "As you've got sugar that's crystalizing and running down the chutes, it's like concrete."

Strong wind coming off the Savannah River made conditions even more hazardous for crews trying to prevent the silos and plant buildings from collapsing, Savannah Fire Capt. Mike Stanley said.

"It is a very delicate environment that they are working in. We have a very windy day and a very weak structure and we are trying our damnedest to find the rest of the workers," Stanley said.

Although officials previously said the fire that had raged in the refinery since the explosion was all but extinguished, authorities said Sunday that fires still burned in the silos. Helicopters were to be brought in Sunday to pour retardant to put out the flames, Wilson said.

Rescue workers and company managers were trying to determine where the missing men might be. Officials were focusing on at least three areas of the plant, including the silos.

The search was halted at sunset because the debris-strewn refinery remained too hazardous for nighttime searches. It resumed Sunday morning.

Imperial Sugar was one of the largest and oldest employers in this city of 5,000. The vast refinery was a network of warehouses, silos and buildings eight stories tall connected by corridors of sheet metal.

Twenty workers were hospitalized with severe burns, 17 of them in medically induced comas.

Investigators with the Georgia Fire Marshal's office, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board began arriving Saturday.

Imperial President and CEO John Sheptor has said sugar dust in a silo used to store refined sugar before packaging likely ignited like gunpowder. Sugar dust can be combustible if it's too dry and builds up a static electric charge.

Company officials have refused to speculate on when the plant might reopen, saying structural engineers needed to examine the damage.

On the Net:

Imperial Sugar: http://www.imperialsugar.com/


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