- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 30, 2003

KINSTON, N.C., Jan. 29 (UPI) — Authorities are looking for the cause of an explosion and fire at a pharmaceuticals plant that was still smoldering Thursday, a day after it shook a North Carolina town.

Company officials confirmed that three people died and 27 were injured, eight of them critically when the explosion ripped through the West Pharmaceutical plant just outside the city limits of Kinston.

Thursday, agents from a number of federal and state agencies flooded the town to try and sort through the wreckage for a cause.

"We've got an alphabet soup of agencies here," said Deputy City Manager Phillip Robey. "We've got the ATF, DEA, EPA, FBI" and a number of other agencies preparing to investigate.

Robey said explosion and fire "is still considered an accident.

"The best we can tell it was an internal explosion," he said. "There's no indication that outside influence caused the blast."

The plant employs about 255 people and manufactures plastic and rubber components such as syringe plungers and IV connectors from raw materials and chemicals.

Mayor Johnnie Mosley said 115 people were working in the plant when the explosion occurred about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Debris from the explosion caused damage to the Arendell Parrott Academy, a private school about 1 mile away. About 600 students at the school were evacuated and then sent home. Debris was also scattered over the Global Transpark, a nearby airfield.

Six people were airlifted by helicopter to the nearest hospital burn unit, at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Others were taken to a hospital in Greenville, N.C.

Company president Don Morel said he had been meeting with families of the victims and would visit some of the victims in are hospitals. He said the company was providing grief counselors and were meeting with employees about medical and salary benefits and possible employment at other West plants. The company has five similar plants in the United States and 10 worldwide.

He said trading in the company's stock, suspended after the explosion, was resumed Thursday.

Robey said the plant was a major employer in the area, adding: "In a community of this sort the impact is felt by everyone. Everyone knows someone who works there."

He said financially the town would face a loss of revenue from the utilities that the plant paid. The plant was outside city limits so property taxes went to Lenoir County, he said.

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