Ga. Insurance Commissioner: Sugar Refinery Fire was Accidental

February 19, 2008

Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John W. Oxendine said an investigation by his office, local authorities and federal officials has determined that the explosion and fire at the Imperial Sugar Co. refinery in Port Wentworth, Ga., was accidental.

“We believe the fire was caused by the ignition of sugar dust in the air,” Oxendine said. “Static electricity, machinery being activated, or some other spark would be all it took to trigger an explosion.”

The explosion and fire on Feb. 7 caused eight confirmed fatalities. Seven bodies have been recovered, and one employee died Feb. 14 at the Burn Center at Doctors Hospital in Augusta.

“With that much sugar dust in the air, think of it this way: If you have a building and the natural gas is turned on, and then something ignites it, the air is filled with natural gas and you’re going to have an explosion – even if you have sprinklers,” Oxendine said.

Firefighters finally managed to douse the last remnants of the blaze at the Imperial Sugar Co. Feb. 14, a week after the fires were ignited.

Sugar dust was thought early on to be the cause of the Feb. 7 blast.
Local crews called in a specialized team with powerful equipment to assault the silo fires, where thick masses of molten sugar were still smoldering even after a helicopter dumped thousands of gallons of water on the fire.

The team extinguished the stubborn blazes using a mix of foam and water that lowered the temperatures inside the silos from as high as 4,000 degrees to below 70 degrees, said Port Wentworth Fire Chief Greg Long.

The refinery is located on a 160-acre site on the Savannah River upstream from Savannah. The plant is 872,000 square feet, and 111,000 square feet – about 12 percent – was destroyed, said company spokesman Steve Behm.

“This was a terrible tragedy,” said Oxendine. “My hope is that this information will be of some assistance to family members as they’re trying to grieve and go through this process, that they at least have some knowledge of how this occurred.”

One worker is still missing and presumed dead, while 16 workers
remain hospitalized according to Oxendine.

Sources: Georgia Insurance Commission
Associated Press

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