Fitchburg, MA Chemical Tank Explosion, Sep 1980


Fitchburg, Mass. (AP) -- A tank holding a highly toxic chemical vinyl chloride overheated and exploded, injuring at least 18 people and prompting the temporary evacuation of 2,000 downtown residents from this north-central Massachusetts city.
The situation at the Great American Chemical Co. plant was under control, but firefighters remained on the scene early today, Deputy Fire Chief James Keane said.
A dozen families whose homes are nearest the chemical plant were advised by police to stay away until later today.
Employees were working in the processing center of the plant, which converts the gas into plastic for making toys and other products, when a tank apparently overheated and exploded at 8:55 p.m. Friday, knocking down one of the concrete walls of the building authorities said.
The cause of the blast was under investigation.
During the three-hour evacuation, many families found refuge at St. Camillus Church.
"The scene here was very confusing for awhile," said the Rev. Dennis Rocheford.
"We had some nursing home residents and a thing like this is very confusing. We also had some parents who were out at the time of the evacuation and came here looking for their teen age children. We had others looking for their children who were left with baby sitters."
The evacuees were allowed to go home shortly after midnight, he said.
Two plant employees, DAVID LEE, 33, and ROGER DRURY, 34, both of Fritchburg, were in stable condition at Burbank Hospital, both suffering from burns and lacerations, said hospital spokesman Kanes Leach.
A spectator and 15 firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation, Leach said.
Automatic sensing devices at the plant had detected leaking vinyl chloride gas shortly after 8 p.m., Keane said. Firefighters saw a "thick, heavy, white dense cloud lying near the ground" when they arrived at the plant.
"I got out of my car and started ordering the men to take their positions when it exploded," Keane said.
Police and firefighters from about a dozen surrounding communities also rushed to the scene -- about 65 miles northwest of Boston -- immediately after the blast.
Ray Asti, director of manufacturing for the plant, said, "We had a gas escape and some ignition source."
What caused the explosion or the cost of repairing the damage were not immediately known, he said.
The state fire marshal's office was investigating.
Keane said a small gas leak still existed at the plant and it might take as long as 45 hours for all the gas to bleed off from the tank where it was held.

Indiana Gazette Pennsylvania 1980-09-20