Kinston, NC Pharmaceutical Plant Explosion, Jan 2003
EXPLOSION EXTINGUISHES ONE OF A NORTH CAROLINA TOWN'S FEW BRIGHT SPOTS.
Kinston, N.C., Jan. 30 - Before Wednesday, the 255 people who worked at this town's bustling medical supply plant counted themselves lucky to work hard shifts mixing hot chemicals and stamping out syringes for $11 or $12 an hour.
Good blue-collar jobs are hard to come by in Kinston, where tobacco and textiles reigned, then vanished, nothing has taken their place, and unemployment always seems to get worse.
But after the Wednesday afternoon explosion that set the West Pharmaceutical Services factory ablaze, killing 3 workers and injuring 37, those who emerged unscathed or had been scheduled for a later shift were counting their blessings for a different reason.
"I wanted to come at 11 to work some overtime, but they wouldn't let me," said Tammy Smith, who lost two friends in the explosion and said she would probably have been killed had she been on the job.
Today, federal investigators who converged on the remains of the plant focused on whether dust created by the mixing and drying of chemicals that form rubber and plastic could have caused the blast.
As fires smoldered in a steady mist, law enforcement and safety investigators interviewed scores of survivors and other employees of the factory, seeking clues to whatever - or whoever - had set off the explosion.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was treating the scorched factory, which made syringes and parts for intravenous hookups, as a crime scene. While fire marshals said the area was still too hot this afternoon to allow investigators in, the bureau's agents were expected to don safety suits and start sifting for clues later tonight or tomorrow, officials said.
But accident investigators from the United States Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board said their interviews with plant managers and workers today led them to zero in on dust as a possible cause of the blast.
Workers said the explosion occurred
in a part of the factory known as automated compounding systems, the half of the plant that makes rubber and plastic from chemicals like polymers, sulfur, clay and oils. They said the blast started in or near one of the two mixers that combine those ingredients under heat, before the material becomes sheets of plastic that are used on the other side of the plant to make its finished products.
Investigators agreed with the employees' account.
"Dust poses a potential ignition hazard," said Sandy Gilmour, a spokesman for the chemical safety board, in the same way that a spark in a grain elevator can cause a tremendous explosion.
Mr. Gilmour said the board would have the chemicals used at the factory analyzed to learn under what conditions they could ignite. He said that the board's experts were looking for possible sources of ignition, but that those they had identified so far were all contained within the plant's components and thus should not have posed a danger.