Search for 3 workers in Ga. refinery blast that killed 5 others stymied as sugar solidifies

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Associated Press Writer

PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. (AP) -- Search crews found no trace Sunday of three workers still missing in the smoldering remnants of a sugar refinery explosion last week that left five people dead and injured dozens more.

Officials called off the search at sunset, but had not yet searched a part of the Imperial Sugar plant that was still burning and where the buildings were dangerously unstable.

Sugar still burning in two of the refinery's three badly damaged, 100-foot storage silos threatened to weaken the towering structures to the point of collapsing if the fire wasn't extinguished soon, Fire Chief Greg Long said.

He said firefighters hoped to smother the silo fires Monday by using construction cranes to dump sand into silos. One of the silos blew up late Thursday, possibly after combustible sugar dust ignited.

Long said search crews had covered 95 percent of the massive refinery. While more bodies were not recovered, Long said it was unlikely company officials were wrong to believe three more workers remained inside.

"They have used dilligence in getting me the exact number of people," said Long, who knows the missing workers personally. "They're confident in it. Unfortunately, I need to be confident in it."

Long said the areas that had not yet been searched were on the first floor of a building near the explosion, including a break room, where upper floors had collapsed.

After shoring up the building, crews would have to squeeze into tight spaces among the rubble to search them.

Mounds of sugary sludge pouring out of the silos Sunday was solidifying, creating another obstacle to the recovery efforts. A firefighter said his search team had to use power tools to tear down a door glued shut by sticky sludge.

"As you've got sugar that's crystalizing and running down the chutes, it's like concrete," Savannah-Chatham County police Sgt. Mike Wilson said.

Strong wind coming off the Savannah River made conditions even more hazardous for crews trying to prevent the silos and plant buildings from collapsing, Savannah Fire Capt. Mike Stanley said.

"We have a very windy day and a very weak structure," Stanley said.

Meanwhile, none of the five recovered bodies have been positively identified, said Savannah-Chatham County police Detective Josh Hunt.

Hunt said investigators have asked families for medical and dental records and any information about specific medical conditions, broken bones or surgeries the workers may have had to help identify the bodies.

"Unfortunately, due to the severity of this disaster, it's going to be a difficult conclusion to reach," he said.

Seventeen workers remained hospitalized Sunday in critical condition with severe burns. Three others were released Sunday, said Beth Frits of the Joseph M. Burn Center in Augusta.

One of the critically injured, 49-year-old Gene Daniel Bryan Jr., moved his head Sunday in response to relatives, even though he was in a medically induced coma, said his sister, Penny Daley.

Bryan, a supervisor, led several of his employees to an exit but they had to flee down a staircase that was engulfed in flames, Daley said in a telephone interview.

"It's hard to say it makes it all worth it, but I'm just glad to say he was able to help somebody," Daley said.

Imperial Sugar was one of the largest and oldest employers in this city of 5,000. The vast refinery was a network of warehouses, silos and buildings eight stories tall connected by corridors of sheet metal.

Imperial officials have said sugar dust in a silo used to store refined sugar before packaging likely ignited like gunpowder. Sugar dust can be combustible if it's too dry and builds up a static electric charge.


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