Six people missing in sugar dust refinery explosion

By Anastasia Tomazhenkova: Dozens workers were injured in a night explosion that rocked a sugar dust refinery in Georgia. Waterfront facility burst into flame. Firefighters still were fighting the fire Friday morning. Six people are missing.

It is not quite clear what caused the explosion Thursday night but officials claimed they suspect sugar dust, which can be volatile.

"There was fire all over the building," said Nakishya Hill, a machine operator who said she escaped from the third floor of the refinery on the Savannah River.

"All I know is, I heard a loud boom and everything came down," said Hill, who was uninjured except for blisters on her elbow. "All I could do when I got down was take off running."

Capt. Matthew Stanley of the Savannah Fire Departmente claimed that fire had been partially contained early Friday, but still was not under control. "We have diminished it considerably, but we're still struggling to get to parts of it," he said.

The fire had been extinguished in the area where the explosion happened, but structural damage was still keeping firefighters out, Stanley said. Firefighters were waiting until daylight before trying to enter the area. Authorities also were talking with the military about bringing in Chinook helicopters to dump water on the fire, Stanley said.

The blast was felt by residents throughout the Savannah suburb. No deaths were immediately reported, but six people remained unaccounted for hours later, said Chief Michael Berkow of the Savannah-Chatham County police.

There were 95 to 100 people believed to be working in the area of the explosion, Berkow said. More than 50 people were taken to hospitals, and some of them were airlifted to a burn center in Augusta, 130 miles (209 kilometers) up the Savannah River, according to police and hospital officials. Several were in critical condition.

The plant is owned by Imperial Sugar and is known in Savannah as the Dixie Crystals plant.

"A far as we know, it was a sugar dust explosion," Imperial Sugar CEO John Sheptor said. He said it happened in a storage silo where refined sugar is stored until it is packaged.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Lynn said the river was closed to ship traffic from the Port of Savannah while the river was searched for possible victims. None had been found.

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

Sugar dust is considered a combustible dust, according the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration's Web site. Static electricity, sparks from metal tools or a cigarette can ignite explosions.

Imperial Sugar, based in Sugar Land, Texas, acquired Savannah Foods & Industries, the producer of Dixie Crystals, in 1997. The acquisition doubled the size of the company, making it the largest processor and refiner of sugar in the U.S., according to the company's Web site.

Imperial markets some of the country's leading consumer brands, Imperial, Dixie Crystals and Holly, as well as supplying sugar and sweetener products to industrial food manufacturers.

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