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

Eds: UPDATES with search narrowed for missing men inside plant but impossible to reach; Minor edits. Moving on general news and financial services.

AP Photo GASM103, GASM105


Associated Press Writer

PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. (AP) -- Sugar that was still burning three days after a refinery explosion killed at least five people hampered the search Sunday for three other workers missing since the blast leveled portions of the plant.

Crews used construction cranes to shore up three badly damaged, 80-foot storage silos that rescue workers want to search for the missing men. One of the silos blew up late Thursday, possibly after combustible dust ignited.

Mounds of sugary sludge pouring out of the silos Sunday was solidifying, though, creating another obstacle to the recovery efforts.

Roy Howard, a Savannah firefighter, said his search team had to use power tools to tear down a refinery door that was glued shut with the sticky sludge.

"It is very difficult to get into these spots," Howard said of areas they want to search inside the plant.

Rescuers believe they've narrowed down the possible locations but debris from collapsed portions also made it impossible to reach on Sunday, he 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.

"It is a very delicate environment that they are working in. We have a very windy day and a very weak structure and we are trying our damnedest to find the rest of the workers," Stanley said.

Although officials previously said the fire that had raged in the refinery since the explosion was all but extinguished, authorities said Sunday that fires still burned in the silos. Helicopters were to be brought in Sunday to pour retardant to put out the flames, said Sgt. Mike Wilson of Savannah-Chatham County police.

"You've got three silos down there that are still burning, you've got sugar still burning," Wilson said. "As you've got sugar that's crystalizing and running down the chutes, it's like concrete."

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.

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.

Investigators with the Georgia Fire Marshal's office, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board began arriving Saturday.

Imperial President and CEO John Sheptor has 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.

Company officials have refused to speculate on when the plant might reopen, saying structural engineers needed to examine the damage.


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