Officials Seek Cause of Ink Plant Explosion in Mass.

November 26, 2006

While others may see a huge pile of charred and twisted rubble, Danvers, Mass. Fire Chief James Tutko sees a “big, big puzzle” that holds the answers to what caused a massive explosion that leveled an ink and paint plant, but amazingly caused no serious injuries or deaths.

“Think of a picture that has been blown apart, and we’ve got to put all the pieces back together,” Tutko said Saturday.

Tutko said he believed investigators would know the explosion’s cause within a week.

Wearing full facial respirators and protective coveralls, three teams of four men took turns combing through a 10-foot-high pile of debris for clues to what sparked the 2:50 a.m. blast Wednesday that people felt as far away as New Hampshire.

Tutko said the probers would compare aerial photographs of the debris site with diagrams of where chemicals were stored inside the plant to help them determine the direction and amount of force the blast generated. He said the investigation teams would look through the rubble layer by layer for clues to how heat and flames spread through the site. All of this will help them home in on an origin point for the explosion, he said.

Once the investigators have the origin point, they can focus on what materials were stored in that area and what activities took place there in the hours before the explosion, Tutko said. He said officials and employees of CAI Inc. and Arnel Co., the two firms that shared the destroyed building, are cooperating in the investigation.

Representative from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board traveled from Washington, D.C., to conduct their own investigation of the explosion, but were denied access to the site by state and local officials. Tutko said the federal probers were “uninvited” and “unwelcome,” adding he was annoyed they were quoted in a local newspaper offering theories about the explosion’s cause before they even stepped onto the property.

CSB spokesman Daniel Horowitz said the federal Clean Air Act authorized his agency to enter the site and investigate and to subpoena witnesses if necessary. He said he was confident jurisdictional disputes among the investigators would be ironed out.

Meanwhile, approximately 200 residents of the Danversport neighborhood around the blast site remained barred from their homes Saturday. Some houses on Bates Street closest to the explosion were badly damaged and will have to be razed, Town Manager Wayne Marquis said, but many others sustained minor visible damage other than shattered windows.

Marquis said he hoped some residents on Riverside Street could move back into their houses on Sunday after licensed plumbers and electricians check connections and fittings in the structures. Natural gas and electrical power to the neighborhood has been shut off since the explosion.

Almost all the displaced residents visited Danvers town hall on Friday and Saturday to register with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and get answers to questions about insurance coverage and available help.

Marquis said the American Red Cross had placed 27 families in hotels as of Friday night. He said the agency would help people find apartments if they are unable to move back to their homes for an extended period.

Marquis urged people who live near the explosion site but were not evacuated to have their house chimneys checked for cracks to guard against possible carbon monoxide hazards.

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