Imperial Sugar Co. Plant Still Burns, Workers Still Missing

The fire from the Imperial Sugar Co. plant explosion in Port Wentworth, Georgia, continued to burn today, five days after an explosion at the plant injured scores of workers and killed at least six. Two Imperial Sugar Co. workers are still unaccounted for, and the company is bringing in a fire suppression team to fight the fire in the plant’s sugar silos.

Imperial Sugar Co. is the manufacturer of Imperial, Holly and Dixie brand sweeteners. According to the company, the explosion occurred at 7:00 p.m. last Thursday in a silo where refined sugar is stored before being packaged. According to news reports, the Imperial Sugar Co. explosion was the result of a “sugar dust explosion”. Plants where a lot of sugar dust is present are classified by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration as “hazardous locations,” the same classification as coal preparation plants and producers of plastics, medicines and fireworks, according to the OSHA Web site. When sugar dust is aerosolized, it can get ionically charged and ignite from just a bit of static electricity. Witnesses in neighboring towns and across the Savannah River in South Carolina reported seeing flames shoot up several stories and hearing the blast.

The search for the two missing Imperial Sugar Co. workers has been impeded by the continuing fire, as well as the wreckage from the explosion. Mounds of sugary sludge that poured out of two silos had solidified in places, making a sticky, concrete-like mixture that had to be cut with power tools. According to Port Wentworth emergency officials, the fire spread deeper into the sugar silos than first imagined, complicating efforts to put it out. It was initially thought that only the first 3 or 4 feet of sugar in the silo was on fire, but thermal imaging cameras were used to determine that the fire reaches down as deep as 10 or 12 feet. One major concern is that the silos could collapse, an event that would make the plant unsearchable.

According to the Associated Press, seventeen Imperial Sugar Co. workers remained hospitalized Monday, including 16 in critical condition with severe burns. The remains of some of the workers killed in the Imperial Sugar Co. explosion have not yet been identified, and dental records will be needed to make those identifications.

Imperial Sugar Co. – the major employer in Port Wentworth – has promised to rebuild the plant. The company has also promised to pay workers while the repairs take place.

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