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Combustible Dust Ground Zero: The Real Story

I came across this archived article today and thought it was still worth sharing.  Written 5 months after the Imperial Sugar Factory tragedy, this Savannah newspaper article paints a dreadful picture of the blast heard ’round the world and really puts the incident into perspective. Imperial Sugar was not just an incident that brought combustible dust to the headlines, awaking the regulatory giants; it was a small town disaster, with lives lost, people injured and countless more emotionally scarred forever.

A Tragedy Born in Dust

From savannahnow.com, Savannah  Morning News

From the second the massive fireball shot into the night sky Feb. 7, the explosion at the Imperial Sugar Co. refinery became much more than a local tragedy in a small company town.

Bright orange flames were visible 20 miles from the Port Wentworth plant. The secondary blast, about 7:20 p.m., was so bright it was easily recorded on a security camera a couple of miles away at the Georgia Ports Authority.

Smoke billowed 2,000 feet into the night air and was so thick, air traffic controllers picked it up on their radar.

At ground level, it was pure terror.

The concussive force knocked employees in adjacent work areas off their feet. As they rushed to respond, little was recognizable.

Walls were blown away.

Floors buckled.

Fire rolled in waves along the ceiling.

“I saw some horrific injuries,” said Tony Holmes, a forklift operator. “People had clothes burning. Their skin was hanging off.”

****

Within minutes, the response spread far beyond Port Wentworth and its 3,500 residents.

Firefighters, police officers, emergency medical assistance crews and other responders converged from Savannah-Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties – and beyond.

Initial reports indicated as many as 100 people might have been killed. The plant employed 352 people, plus 120 contract workers.

Eight died in the initial blast. Five more succumbed to their burns. Three of the 20 patients treated at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta remain hospitalized there today.

More than five months after that horrific night, Port Wentworth Fire Chief Greg Long still has to push back the images and the sounds of disaster whenever he drives along the plant’s winding entry.

“I still get the same feeling every time I drive down Oxnard Drive,” he said. “I still get that eerie feeling, and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

****

Because of disaster response planning, emergency department personnel quickly mobilized at St. Joseph’s and Candler hospitals as well as at Memorial University Medical Center.

Gurneys lined the hallways or stretched into parking lots as doctors, nurses and other medical workers waited for the burned and injured to arrive.

They came in waves – some in ambulances driven by police officers so the paramedics could focus on stabilizing the patients as they were transported.

Memorial treated the majority, handling more than 30 burn victims the first night. Ten were flown or taken by ambulance to the burn center in Augusta.

Patty Fletcher, a registered nurse at Memorial, later would write to the Savannah Morning News that she was “in awe” of the well-coordinated response.

“Within minutes, the disaster plan was put in motion,” Fletcher wrote. “Staff, from some of the top administrators who had been at an event and arrived in tuxedos to environmental services who were at home eating dinner, started appearing from everywhere to help.”

****

Help came in so many other ways.

Neighbors rushed to churches, opening sanctuaries for those who needed to pray or needed solace.

In Chatham County and beyond, blood donors by the thousands rolled up their sleeves and held out their arms to help supply burn victims with massive amounts of blood that they would require daily.

“There is a moment in every community’s life that defines its character,” explained the Rev. Sam Self, pastor of First Baptist Church. “We reached a moment where there was such a unity. We had strangers walking up asking, ‘What can I do?’ ”

Gerald Schantz, owner of Gerald’s Diner, organized a barbecue fundraiser for burn victims’ families. In a single afternoon, he raised $22,000.

The United Way of the Coastal Empire assumed the largest fundraising role. By the end of March, the United Way had raised more than $1 million.

A fundraiser today featuring former Harlem Globetrotters standout Meadowlark Lemon and other teammates will benefit the United Way fund.

****

Most of the money raised will help support the burn victims and their families.

For them, recovery will mean months, if not years, of painful skin grafts, physical therapy and the constant risk of infection.

From the first days, the family members and friends making daily trips to Augusta reached out to each other.

“I think you see kind of a community forming in the waiting room,” said Glen Burnsed, who was visiting his injured brother-in-law. “I don’t know if camaraderie is the word, but there’s a lot of helping each other out and kind of sharing each other’s stories on how their loved ones are doing.”

Burnsed’s brother-in-law, Kelly Fields, later became the first burn victim to die of his injuries.

Walter Byron Maxwell and Troy Bacon left the burn center two months to the day after the explosion, and they motivated each other in their rehabilitation sessions at Memorial.

They do what they can to show their thanks to the community, sometimes attending blood drives so donors can see how their efforts help.

Want to read more? Savannah News has an entire section of their website dedicated to the Imperial Sugar Explosion.