Frustrated officials trying to put out Ga. sugar plant fire turn to specialists

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Associated Press Writer

PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. (AP) -- Specialists arrived Tuesday to help extinguish a five-day-old sugar-refinery fire burning too intensely and deeply for standard firefighting to douse, and officials feared the deadly blaze could once again trigger explosions.

Thick masses of molten sugar were smoldering at temperatures as high as 4,000 degrees and three more fires ignited Tuesday, even after a helicopter dumped thousands of gallons on the fire.

"We're dealing with a dormant volcano full of lava," said Capt. Matt Stanley from the fire department in nearby Savannah.

Six people are confirmed dead in Thursday's fire and two other workers remained missing Tuesday.

The fire was knocked back enough that emergency workers were able to expand their search area Tuesday, and they now say that 95 percent of the refinery has been combed. One search dog fell into a pool of hot molasses Tuesday, but suffered only minor burns on its hind legs and was able to go back to work, Stanley said.

Officials said they were able to remove five railcars that were blocking a section of the plant they have yet to reach. Port Wentworth Fire Chief Greg Long said if the progress continues, the entire blaze could be snuffed out by Wednesday night.

"We have made marvelous progress," said Long. "We've got a good hold on this and I don't want to let it go."

The sugar fire offers a particularly difficult challenge. Firefighters hope to extinguish it by cooling and solidifying the top layer of the smoldering sugar, forming an oxygen barrier to smother the fire below.

A helicopter with a 250-gallon bucket dropped almost 100 loads of water from the Savannah River on gutted silos of burning sugar Monday, reducing the temperature of the sugar to about 2,800 degrees. It left only a bit of a crust on the sugar.

That means a dangerous fire is still burning under the top layer, said Long.

"It can still burn underneath, and can re-ignite into other areas," he said. "We've put out the top, we just can't get to the core."

Local officials have called upon a Texas company that specializes in putting out oil and silo fires, Williams Fire Suppression. On Tuesday the company was hauling in specialized equipment from North Carolina that can pump out 6,000 gallons of water and foam a minute.

Using water pumped from the nearby Savannah River, firefighters expect to be ready to attack the blaze by noon Wednesday. They plan to perch on a tower rising above the refinery, and train their hoses on the blaze below.

"It's unconventional," said Chauncey Naylor, the company's vice president. "But that's why we're in business. It's a specialty that requires a little bit of outside-the-box thinking."

He adds: "Sugar's definitely different. I've never put out a sugar fire, but I'm fixing to put this one out."

Mayor Glenn "Pig" Jones expressed renewed hope Tuesday that the outside help will dampen the blaze.

"Any time you bring in more resources, it's always a good thing," said Jones. "We still have two people missing and I know they won't give up until they find those people."

The Imperial Sugar Co. refinery is located on a 160-acre site on the river upstream from Savannah. The plant is 872,000 square feet and 111,000 square feet -- about 12 percent -- was destroyed, said company spokesman Steve Behm.

Imperial CEO John Sheptor said the company plans to repair the plant and an engineering team was preparing to begin the job of determining what needs to be done.

Workers will continue to be paid, he said. But there's no telling how quickly the plant can be rebuilt.

Port Wentworth residents are eagerly awaiting further word on the future of the refinery, the economic engine of this town of about 5,000.

"If you live in this city, if you don't have a relative who works there, I promise that you know people who work there," Jones said. "The refinery is a cornerstone of the city, and I've got friends with four and five generations of family working there. When a grandfather retires, a grandson is hired."

Seventeen workers remained hospitalized Monday -- 16 in critical condition with severe burns -- said Beth Frits of the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta.

Dr. Fred Mullins, medical director for the burn center, said it will likely be a week or more before there is any significant sign of recovery for the patients, many of whom will require skin grafts for their most severe burns. Infections are the biggest fear, he said.

"When you get burned like this, your immune system doesn't function properly," Mullins said.

One worker, Paul Seckinger, has burns over 80 percent of his body and can't talk because he's on a ventilator. But his mother, Karen, said Tuesday the 34-year-old is alert, and is able to respond by shaking his head or moving his feet.

"When we came, they told us there'd be good days and bad days. But today was a good day," she said at a press conference at the Augusta hospital.

Justin Purnell, 23, suffered burns on 60 percent of his body and will likely spend about two months in the hospital, his wife said.

"He's very strong, so we know he will pull through," Jenny Purnell said. "Nobody can imagine. It's amazing how your life can change."


Associated Press Writer Meg Kinnard in Augusta, Ga. contributed to this report.


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