Blast, fires close Domino refinery

Sugar plant explosion is felt across Inner Harbor

November 03, 2007|By Julie Bykowicz and Gus. G. Sentementes | Julie Bykowicz and Gus. G. Sentementes,Sun reporters

Shattered windows of the Domino Sugar plant looked out over South Baltimore last night after an explosion, so powerful that it shook buildings across the Inner Harbor, forced the refinery's evacuation and closure - possibly for days.

Fire officials said the blast did not appear to have done any significant damage to structures at the plant, an integral part of the city skyline for 85 years.

The explosion and fires, on the sixth and ninth floors of a building where sugar is refined and packaged, were confined to a dust collection system, officials said. The system gathers the sugar dust that is created by moving the sugar from place to place. It was unclear last night what caused the ignition.

An employee working on the top floor suffered burns to his hands and was taken by ambulance to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, said Chief Kevin Cartwright, a Fire Department spokesman. His identity was not released.

The famed neon Domino Sugars sign did not come on at nightfall as usual, but by about 8:30 p.m. it was again illuminating the harbor waters.

"We're very, very fortunate this wasn't any worse than it was," Cartwright said. He said the plant manager hoped to have the refinery operational within a week. Union officials who represent the plant workers said they were still awaiting word on the length of the plant's closure.

Ron Frey, human resources manager at the sugar plant, said sprinklers activated and the workers "evacuated immediately," helping to prevent injuries.

"It is amazing," Frey said. "We're very fortunate."

The explosion at 10 a.m. sent about 175 employees streaming into the parking lot off Key Highway as nearly 100 firefighters rushed to the scene and concerned relatives and neighbors gathered for news.

Firefighters swept through the building looking for employees who had not fled and extinguished the flames by 11:30 a.m.

Dazed and tearful

A dazed roofer, Mark Holquist of J&R Roofing, said he had been on top of an adjoining refinery building. He said he heard a loud bang and began to pray.

"Dear Lord, please don't let this building come crashing down," he recalled saying.

A tearful woman walked to Domino's entrance to inquire about her son, Tommy Kirby, who she said has worked there for 35 years. "I just want to know if he's all right," Betty Eyler said, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. "I want to hear about my son."

Gina Orsino, a young mother who lives in the 1400 block of Woodall St., across from the plant, was on the phone with her husband when she felt the blast.

"I was feeding the baby, and I thought the ceiling was caving in," she said. "I looked outside and saw all the firetrucks and helicopters. ... I opened the door and it was like `Oh, my God!'"

City landmark

The Domino plant opened in 1922, along the Patapsco River and the rail tracks of the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. One of the largest sugar suppliers on the East Coast, the Baltimore plant makes granulated, brown and confectioner's sugar. Those goods are sold to major candy and soft-drink makers, and to consumers in grocery stores.

About 300 employees work there, and union officials said 175 were there at the time of the explosion.

Michael Leshner, a forensic engineer and consultant from Elkton who has investigated fires and explosions, said dust raised by sugar particles, as well as any granular material, can become a fuel when it mixes with the right amount of air and gets a spark.

That's why over the years there have been a number of explosions at granaries and other sites where dust can accumulate, he said.

"Sugar is a fuel. They make ethanol fuel from sugar cane, and when you mix a fuel with air in the right amounts, it can become highly explosive," he said.

Few accidents

The plant's safety record over the past decade shows relatively few blemishes, but a 36-year-old heavy equipment operator died in August 2000 after being sprayed by calcium hydroxide while cleaning some straining equipment. The company was fined $35,500, records show.

Since January 2005, inspectors from the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health agency have been called to the plant four times, said Rhonda Wardlaw, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

According to MOSH files, the agency assessed a $3,400 fine after a worker suffered fractured hand bones and needed 12 stitches on his right hand Sept. 13, 2006, when it become pinned against the frame of heavy machinery.

MOSH plans to investigate yesterday's explosion and fire, said Linda Jaehnigen, MOSH's acting chief of compliance. Any fire and safety code violations could result in fines of up to $70,000, she said.

"Right now, we're in the process of just beginning the investigation," she said.

Two minutes and out

Jim Papian, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, based in Washington, D.C., said Domino workers are well-trained in safety.

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