- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. (AP) — An explosion and fire at a sprawling sugar refinery rattled this Savannah suburb last night, severely injuring dozens of people and sending authorities into a nearby river to search for victims, officials said.

No deaths were immediately reported in the blast, which a company official said was probably caused by sugar dust. Ninety-five to 100 people were believed to be working in the area of the blast, and six were unaccounted for, said Chief Michael Berkow of the Savannah-Chatham County police.

“As far as we know, it was a sugar dust explosion,” Imperial Sugar CEO John Sheptor said. The blast happened in a silo where refined sugar is stored until it is packaged, he said.

At least 40 people were taken to hospitals, and eight of them were flown to a burn center in Augusta, 130 miles up the Savannah River, he said.

Nakishya Hill, a machine operator who said she escaped from the third floor of the refinery, an area landmark near the river, described fire “all over the building.”

“All I know is, I heard a loud boom and everything came down,” said Ms. Hill, who was not injured except for blisters on her elbow.

“When I got up, I went down and found a couple of people and we climbed out of there from the third floor to the first floor. Half of the floor was gone. The second floor was debris, the first floor was debris.

“All I could do when I got down was take off running,” she said.

Dr. Jay Goldstein of Memorial University Medical Center said 30 to 35 patients were being treated, all in critical condition and most with “significant burns.” Candler Hospital reported three patients in serious condition.

A triage center was set up at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Port Wentworth, where Savannah-Chatham police Maj. Gerry Long said 28 had been sent on to hospitals.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Lynn said shipping was shut down on the Savannah River while the waterway was searched for victims.

“It’s a large facility, and there is still a significant amount of fire,” said Clayton Scott, assistant director of the Chatham County Emergency Management Agency.

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