- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 30, 2003

KINSTON, N.C. (AP) An explosion followed by a raging fire demolished a plastics factory yesterday, killing at least two persons and injuring at least 27.
As many as six others were feared trapped in the burning ruins, which sent black, acrid smoke billowing over the countryside.
Six hours after the thunderous blast, Gov. Michael F. Easley said two deaths had been confirmed and six persons were still missing. Earlier, a hospital spokeswoman had said as many as eight were feared dead.
The cause of the blast at the West Pharmaceutical plant was not immediately known. The factory, which made syringe plungers and intravenoous supplies, had been cited for numerous safety violations last fall.
Sampson Heath said the explosion on the other side of the factory sent a plume of fire toward his work station and knocked him off his feet. When he stood up, he saw wires and tiles hanging from the ceiling and could hear trapped co-workers screaming for help.
"Your life did flash before your eyes," Mr. Heath said as he stood in the yard of a nearby church, getting hugs and kisses from relatives.
The blast was felt for miles, and the building was still burning three hours later, with the columns of smoke punctuated by fireballs. Nearby trees and brush were aflame.
Emergency officials urged residents within a mile of the plant to evacuate because of the smoke, which included fumes from burning plastic.
Lee Edwards, who lives about a tenth of a mile from the plant, said he saw debris from two 800-foot water towers flying through the air at about 1:30 p.m.
"All I can see is just the black smoke, just billowing up in the air. I mean, the whole sky is black," he said. "That whole building is gone."
Jack Lambert, who works at Segrave Aviation nearby, ran toward the plant to help people get out and saw about a dozen people with burns on their arms and backs. "It smells like a bunch of rubber," Mr. Lambert told CNN.
The Lenoir County Sheriff's Department notified the medical examiner that eight persons had died, said Jane Martin at Pitt Memorial Hospital. The exact number of those injured was unknown because victims were being transferred between area hospitals.
It was unknown how many people were in the plant at the time of the explosion, though Mayor Johnnie Mosley said he believed it was 115. The company's Web site said the plant employs about 225 people in this city of 25,000 about 70 miles southeast of Raleigh.
"We are obviously stunned by the news," said Don Morel, president and chief executive officer. "Our overriding concern lies with the well-being and safety of our employees, their loved ones and the surrounding community."

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