PORT WENTWORTH - A powerful explosion that ignited in a storage silo at a sugar refinery killed at least four people, injured dozens of the more than 100 employees working the night shift and all but demolished the plant that's been a core part of this small community's economy for 90 years.
As firefighters pulled the four bodies from the rubble of the Imperial Sugar Company refinery Friday, anxious families gathered at the parish hall of a Catholic church across the street wept as officials gave them the grim news.
Savannah Police Sgt. Mike Wilson said the fourth body was located in the plant about 4 p.m. The other three were found earlier in the day. He said there may be as many as four more bodies still in the plant.
Savannah Fire Capt. Matthew Stanley said portions of the building were still smoldering, and firefighters would work through night to make sure the fire was out. He said no attempts would be made to find more bodies until Saturday, when heavy equipment will be brought in to remove debris.
Imperial Sugar was one of the largest, and oldest, employers in this tiny city of 5,000 just a few miles west of Savannah. The sudden blast that rattled the city late Thursday engulfed the refinery in flames, and shook even those trained to face disaster with stoic resolve.
'I have friends that work at this plant,' said Port Wentworth Fire Chief Greg Long. 'I know the people that are over there at the church. Basically what went through my mind was hopefully I'll wake up and this will all be a dream.'
Investigators had been unable to determine the cause of the explosion Friday as firefighters continued to suppress flames inside the vast refinery - a network of warehouses, silos and buildings eight stories tall connected by corridors of sheet metal.
The company's president and CEO, John Sheptor, said sugar dust in the silo - where refined sugar was stored before being packaged - likely ignited like gunpowder. Sugar dust can become combustible if it's too dry and builds up a static electric charge.
Sheptor was at the plant when it exploded.
'It was a loud noise. There was a very quick response to move everyone out of the building as quick as possible.'
The result was as devastating as a bomb. Floors inside the plant collapsed, flames spread throughout the refinery, metal girders buckled into twisted heaps and shredded sheet metal littered the wreckage.
More than 30 employees were rushed to hospitals as ambulances lined up a dozen at a time outside the refinery's sole entrance road.
Several had to be airlifted to a burn center in Augusta, 130 miles up the Savannah River. Many were in critical condition, including some who were placed on ventilators, said Dr. William Wessinger, the medical director at Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah.
Beth Frits, a spokeswoman for the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital in Augusta, said 16 fire victims transferred from Memorial were in critical condition and three were in serious condition. Another patient was taken to the Medical College of Georgia hospital and was in critical condition, said spokeswoman Denise Parrish.
One patient remained at the Savannah hospital and was in serious condition, said spokeswoman Beth Lakey. She said eight had been treated and released, with the rest transferred to the Augusta hospitals.
By Friday afternoon, the first deaths were confirmed as firefighters pulled the bodies - still unidentified - from the wreckage. At least four more people known to be in the plant during the explosion remained missing, and search efforts were slow as the blast and flames had left much of the refinery unstable.
'There was fire all over the building,' said Nakishya Hill, a machine operator who escaped from the third floor of the refinery on the Savannah River.
'All I know is, I heard a loud boom and everything came down,' said Hill, who was uninjured except for blisters on her elbow. 'All I could do when I got down was take off running.'
Many Imperial Sugar employees gathered at the city's gymnasium for a company meeting Friday. Most declined to speak to reporters, saying company executives had asked them not to.
Employee Dana Claxton, 28, said the company promised its employees would continue to get paid. But that seemed little comfort to the workers hugging outside the gym knowing some of their colleagues could still be trapped - or dead - inside.
'Everybody is upset about everybody. People haven't made it out of there yet,' said Claxton, who has worked at the plant for four years. 'There's a million jobs out here, but there's not a million friends.'
The refinery turns raw cane sugar into crystal sugar sold in supermarkets. The plant opened in 1917 under the ownership of French Cajun transplants from Louisiana. While expanded and modernized over the past 90 years, fire officials said original tongue-and-groove woodwork and other materials from its earliest construction helped feed the blaze that engulfed the plant.
'The city's probably here because of the sugar refinery,' said the Rev. Michael Kavanaugh, parish priest of the Our Lady Of Lourdes Church across the street from the plant. 'It would probably be the most important thing here.'
Imperial Sugar, based in Sugar Land, Texas, acquired Savannah Foods & Industries, the producer of Dixie Crystals, in 1997. The acquisition doubled the size of the company, making it the largest processor and refiner of sugar in the U.S., according to the company's Web site.
Sheptor said the plant had 450 employees.
Imperial markets some of the country's leading consumer brands, Imperial, Dixie Crystals and Holly, as well as supplying sugar and sweetener products to industrial food manufacturers.
In a November 2006 report, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which investigates industrial chemical accidents, recommended that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issue a comprehensive combustible dust standard for general industry.
OSHA did not issue a specific standard in response to CSB's recommendation, but the following year instituted a national emphasis program under which sites would be inspected for various issues, including combustible dust, to make sure they were in compliance with federal regulations, OSHA spokesman Mike Wald said.
The Port Wentworth site has not been inspected as part of that new program, Wald said. He said the last OSHA inspection of the facility was in June 2000. No violations were found, Wald said, adding that the inspection followed a complaint. He didn't have details on who made the complaint or what it involved.
The plant's last inspection by the state Department of Agriculture was Oct. 30, 2007. Records show it was cited for two violations, one involving an opening in a packing room area that could allow for pests to enter and another related to buckets used for packing molasses in a warehouse not being properly protected.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board said Friday it is sending an investigative team to the plant.
Sugar dust is combustible, according the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration's Web site. Static electricity, sparks from metal tools or a cigarette can ignite explosions. Sugar dust is suspected of sparking a nonfatal explosion last summer at a factory in Scottsbluff, Neb., and one that killed a worker in Omaha in 1996.