Update: 5 Fatalities, Several Missing in Georgia Sugar Refinery Blast

February 11, 2008

Two days after a massive explosion and fire devastated a Georgia sugar refinery, John Calvin Butler Jr. and his younger brother, Jamie were still in a medically induced coma .

Company officials have refused to speculate on when the plant might reopen, saying structural engineers needed to examine the damage.

Families and co-workers of 20 refinery employees hospitalized with severe burns, including 17 in medically induced comas, anxiously awaited any sign of recovery on Saturday (Jan. 9).

Good news was scarce as firefighters pulled another body from the plant outside Savannah, raising the death toll to five. Three men still remained missing.

The search was halted at sunset because the debris-strewn refinery remained too hazardous for nighttime searches.

Fire Chief Greg Long said the body was found near the plant’s three 80-foot storage silos, one of which ignited like a bomb during the night shift on Jan. 7.

The blast and fire left much of the massive plant dangerously unstable, and crews had to shore up the sagging upper floors in a four-story building Jan. 9 before resuming searching for the missing men.

Firefighters had all but extinguished the fire that had raged in the refinery since the explosion.

Imperial Sugar was one of the largest and oldest employers in this city of 5,000. The vast refinery was a network of warehouses, silos and buildings eight stories tall connected by corridors of sheet metal.

Investigators with the Georgia Fire Marshal’s office, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board began arriving Jan. 9 to determine the cause of the explosion.

Imperial President and CEO John Sheptor has said sugar dust in a silo used to store refined sugar before packaging likely ignited like gunpowder. Sugar dust can be combustible if it’s too dry and builds up a static electric charge.

Sheptor said the company will continue to pay employees for the time being, but would not say for how long.

More than 300 dust explosions have killed more than 120 works in grain silos, sugar plants and food processing plants over the past three decades. Most are preventable by removing fine dust as it builds up, experts say.

Associated Press writers Ron Word in Savannah and Errin Haines in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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