6 dead, 2 still missing following sugar refinery blast

PORT WENTWORTH - A helicopter hovered in a clear blue sky Monday and dumped 250 gallons of river water onto a gutted sugar refinery where six workers died and two remained missing from an explosion that continued to burn more deeply than officials first supposed.

White smoke wafted from the disaster area after the drop, and the yellow helicopter headed back to the Savannah River, refilled its hopper and returned with another watery load in a scene repeated every two minutes.

One of the Imperial Sugar refinery's three storage silos blew up late Thursday, with exploding sugar dust the likely culprit. Dozens of workers were injured. Fire crews couldn't search for the missing two because hotspots rendered areas of the plant dangerously unstable.

Sand will be used to take on the 4-day-old fire if water drops don't work, said Capt. Matt Stanley from the fire department in nearby Savannah.

Mounds of sugary sludge that poured out of two silos had solidified in places, making a sticky, concrete-like mixture that had to be cut with power tools. Search crews found the body of one of three missing workers Sunday before the search was called of at sunset for the other two.

Port Wentworth Fire Chief Greg Long said the fire, burning at 4,000 degrees, had spread deeper into the sugar silos than first imagined, complicating efforts to put it out.

'We initially thought only the top three or four feet of the product was on fire,' he said. But he said thermal imaging cameras show the fire involves as much as 10 or 12 feet of material. Long said firefighters hope to cool and solidify the top layer, forming an oxygen barrier that smothers the fire below.

Because the fire is so hot, officials are concerned the silos may collapse. Sugar was piled about 55 feet high inside one silo; in the other it was almost 80 feet, Long said. By early afternoon, more than 22,000 gallons of water had been dumped on the silos.

'If they were to fail and collapse, it would render the rest of the plant unsearchable,' Long said.

Once the fire is out, railroad cars near the plant will be moved and debris taken away, allowing searchers to go through the last 5 percent of the plant which has not been searched, he said.

'We have tried everything possible to get to this area. The only way that we'll be able to do that is to remove debris and then get teams in,' he said.

Dump trucks filled with sand, cranes and other ground emergency vehicles were parked in neat rows about 300 yards from the refinery Monday so the smoldering fire could be fought from the air. A heap of twisted, burned girders, metal and other debris was piled nearby.

Seventeen workers remained hospitalized Monday - 16 in critical condition with severe burns - said Beth Frits of the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta.