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 burst into explosions.

Thick masses of molten sugar were smoldering at temperatures as high as 4,000 degrees, 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. One search dog fell into a pool of hot molasses Tuesday, but suffered only minor burns on its back hind legs and was able to go back to work, Stanley said.

Some areas of the plant cannot be searched until the fire is out and debris from one section of the plant is removed, authorities said.

Local officials called in a Texas company, Williams Fire Suppression, that can submerge the fire with specialized equipment that pumps out 6,000 gallons a minute.

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

Long said the fire in the sugar silos was deeper and more stubborn than officials had thought, reaching down as much as 10 or 12 feet. The firefighters hope to cool and solidify the top layer, forming an oxygen barrier to smother the fire below.

Long said the water poured on Monday helped form a bit of a crust on the sugar, but that the fire suppression team was needed to put the blaze out completely before it whips up flames elsewhere.

"Once the sugar solidifies, it makes a layer that's difficult to open," he said. "It can still burn underneath, and can reignite into other areas. We've put out the top, we just can't get to the core."

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," Jones said. "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 to be on site Tuesday 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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