N.C. blast sent workers flying, left victims crawling in darkness

Tight-knit farming town mourns loss of friends and another big employer

January 31, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

KINSTON, N.C. - Eddie Gray couldn't see, stand or tell what had happened. One second he was watching a machine churn out sheets of synthetic rubber to be molded into medical instruments, the next the room darkened, his ears rang and his knees scraped as he desperately cleared away the fallen chunks of cement that trapped him.

"I remember looking out the corner of my eye and debris flying," Gray recalled, a bandage wrapped around his head where he received six stitches.

One day after a fatal explosion and fire ripped through the West Pharmaceutical plant where Gray has worked for 11 years, employees were stunned, investigators confused and residents of this tight-knit farming town of 25,000 mourned the loss of at least three friends - and another big employer.

"We don't need no more hurting, because we've already had enough," said Mary Kirkland, the first Red Cross volunteer on the scene. In her 77 years, she has watched shirt factories leave Kinston and floodwaters come.

A fourth employee who had been unaccounted for was located yesterday. Ten more, badly burned, were in critical condition. At least eight others remained hospitalized.

While firefighters attacked lingering fires in the rear of the plant, investigators waited for its four-story skeleton to cool.

Outside the smoky, acrid site, North Carolina Gov. Michael F. Easley dismissed talk that the explosion might have been caused by a criminal act.

"We do not expect we will find that," he said. "We have no evidence that it is."

Investigators are pursuing a theory that the massive explosion that led to an estimated $150 million damage at the plant was caused by an ignitable cloud of rubber dust, according to a statement yesterday from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, a federal agency that investigates chemical accidents.

The catastrophe was eastern North Carolina's worst since the flooding in 1999. Kinston residents said it came during a normally quiet time of year, when folks wait for warm weather to farm during the day and play in the softball league that the town's dozen churches sponsor at night.

The blast originated in a tower where synthetic rubber, mixing agents and curing agents were mixed in two big vats to form rubber sheets, which were then molded into parts for syringes, intravenous tubes and other medical devices.

The two mixers were replaced last year, said Donald E. Morel Jr., president and chief executive of West Pharmaceutical Services in Lionville, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb.

In October, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration cited the factory for 15 violations, seven of which were considered serious.

Morel said there was no indication that the blast was linked to the violations, which included problems with electrical design, wiring and portable fire extinguishers.

Yesterday, survivors hugged their fishing partners, gave thanks and recalled the turn of events about 1:50 p.m., toward the end of the first shift.

Kay Tanner and four friends were hurled against a bathroom's cinderblock wall by the explosion.

"Everything went dark," said Tanner, who had a knot on her forehead where she smacked the wall. "I got up, made sure everyone was OK and ran out of the building."

Rex Howard, who's cleaned the molds at the plant six or seven days a week for 26 years, was smoking a cigarette in a break room and stood to look at a low-lying plane.

"By the time I set back down, boom!" Howard said.

The break room is at the front of the plant, on the opposite end of the building from where the explosion occurred. Within minutes, Howard had made it outside. But he rushed back in, following the hollering to a bleeding man, who he helped outside.

Yesterday, Howard was wondering whether he could help himself.

"I'm just worried about my life, my bills, how I'm going to live now," said Howard, who made $15 an hour. "We had a good salary, good benefits. I don't know what's going to happen next. I'm sad about the people who died, and I don't know what I'm going to do."

Morel said the company would continue paying the plant's 250 workers through the end of February. By then, it hopes to know whether it can resume operations in the part of the factory where rubber is molded into products, which was not destroyed.

"It's bad, but we're thankful it wasn't worse," Morel said of the damage and loss of life.

About 130 workers were in the plant at the time of the explosion.

The sprawling facility has been one of Kinston's largest private employers during its 28 years of operation, no small thing in a town that has seen tobacco farming dwindle and textile factories leave. The unemployment rate has reached 9 percent, well above the national average.

"Those 250 jobs may be feeding a thousand people, and there are no places out there that have high-paying jobs in these kind of numbers," said Bruce Parson, president of the Kinston-Lenoir County Chamber of Commerce. "It's a big loss."

Jason Turner's sister Kristy worked at West Pharmaceutical - she was getting ready for her shift when the blast occurred - and now he frets about what will happen to her.

"Our worst fear is everybody out there losing their job," he said. "There's already enough people in the area who have lost their job."

Turner had been working in the plant next to West Pharmaceutical when he heard a loud boom and then his building was evacuated.

"I saw the black smoke rolling up, but I didn't get to see anything other than that," Turner said. "We had fire coming down the lawn."

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