ATLANTA (Reuters) - Four people died, four others were missing and more than three dozen were injured in an explosion and fire at a sugar refinery in the U.S. state of Georgia, authorities said on Friday.
Portions of the riverfront plant collapsed in Thursday’s blast, which may have happened in a sugar storage silo or bagging room at the Imperial Sugar Co plant in Port Wentworth, a suburb of Savannah.
“It was a very large explosion that totally destroyed the three-story building where it took place,” Georgia Fire Commissioner John Oxendine told Reuters. “The fire then spread through to the river ... The explosion just totally collapsed one floor on top of the other.”
Imperial Sugar chief executive John Sheptor suggested that volatile sugar dust may have contributed to the blast, police said.
The reported death toll in the massive blast fluctuated throughout the day as rescue crews searched the flooded, fire-ravaged factory and piles of rubble. Police Sgt. Mike Wilson told Reuters that four bodies had been found and four people were still missing.
“We’ve been saying this is fluid and until we put hands on every single person we’re not going to count anybody out,” he said. “What we have unaccounted for is four.”
Around 100 people were in the plant along the banks of the Savannah River when the blast ripped through at about 7:20 p.m. (0020 GMT), police said.
“I’ve been state fire commissioner for 14 years and this is the worst industrial accident that we’ve had in that history,” Oxendine said.
Texas-based Imperial Sugar, the largest processor and refiner of sugar in the United States, said in a statement on Friday it did not know how long the refinery would be closed and that the extent of damage was under investigation.
Imperial Sugar stock was down 8 percent in Friday trading. The blaze had little impact on the domestic sugar market, commodities traders said.
Police said about 38 people were taken to hospitals but the number of people with minor injuries was higher.
Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah received 33 injured workers. Seven were treated and released, 19 were sent on to a burn center in Augusta, and seven were still at the hospital in conditions ranging from serious to critical, spokesman Michael Notrica said.
Jay David Goldstein, chief of emergency medicine at the hospital, said the injuries included “significant body burns.”
“And you also have to worry about blast effect from the explosion, which might throw them 20 feet, and then you have head or bone injuries,” Goldstein said.
Emergency personnel headed to the scene from throughout the area. At least 30 public and private relief and emergency agencies were involved, Chatham County’s emergency management agency said.
Doctors flew in from Augusta, Georgia, to provide assistance.
The refiner produces the Imperial Sugar brand in Texas and the Dixie Crystals brand sold in the southeastern United States, according to a company Web site.
Additional reporting by Ritsuko Ando in New York and Tom Brown and Michael Christie in Miami, Writing by Jim Loney; Editing by Eric Beech