Aerial of the smoldering sugar refinery after the explosion - Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard.

Aerial of the smoldering sugar refinery after the explosion

Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard.

One emergency responder to a massive combustible dust explosion February 7 described the collapsed interior of a four-story packing facility at an industrial refinery near Savannah, GA., as being like the inside of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 terrorist attack.

However, this refinery did not specialize in products normally considered hazardous. The explosive responsible for the devastating blast was refined sugar.

Tod Heil, a team leader with the Georgia Search and Rescue (GSAR) Coastal Task Force, said the risk of a secondary collapse existed for responders throughout the search for possible survivors in the refinery ruins.

"We've got several different types of collapse – pancake collapse, lean to collapse," Heil said. "The lean to collapse provides void spaces where the floors have hinged down and there are places of refuge where there could be possible victims."

Unfortunately, rescue requires survivors. Eight fatalities were pulled from the rubble after the blast and fires. By mid-March, further fatalities among the hospitalized had pushed the death toll to 13 with six survivors listed in critical condition. Dozen more were injured from the more than 100 workers who were present at the time of the explosion.

It took one week to extinguish the last smoldering sections of the damaged refinery. Williams Fire & Hazard Control, a Texas-based team of industrial firefighters renown for extinguishing large diameter flammable liquid storage tank fires, successfully applied their talents to fires lingering in two 80-foot (24 meter) storage silos.

Port Wentworth (GA.) Fire Chief Greg Long served as incident commander throughout the emergency. The prompt, effective action that responders took in the first moments of the disaster saved 85 percent of the surrounding industrial complex, he said. No evacuation beyond the plant gates was required.

"We contained the fires to the areas in which it originated," Long said. "It never spread to the other buildings. That's the reason why they will be able to rebuild."

Taking Charge

Port Wentworth, population 4,000, is located on the Savannah River in northwest Chatham County, just outside the city of Savannah. Long became chief 19 months before the sugar refinery explosion.

His department consists of five paid firefighters, including Long, and 14 volunteers. The two fire stations are staffed from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week with volunteers answering calls after hours. Equipment includes a Pierce Contender pumper, a heavy duty rescue unit, a first responder squad, a Bean Class A pumper, an E-One pumper and a 5,800 gallon (22,000 liter) water tanker.

The sugar refinery is a 160-acre industrial site on the south shore of the Savannah River on the Georgia-South Carolina border. Employing about 400 workers, the refinery in Port Wentworth produces more than 14 million hundredweight of sugar annually.

Founded at the same site in 1917, the refinery predates the incorporation of the city by 40 years. On the southside of the refinery is an elementary school, a church, and residential neighborhoods. Other plants and housing lie west of the refinery and, to the east, is the Georgia Port Authority.

"Generations of families have worked there," Long said. "Moms and dads worked at the sugar refinery, then their children."

But despite all the history that binds the sugar refinery to Port Wentworth, Long's fire department only became responsible for providing fire protection at the facility six months before the explosion. The refinery is in an industrial area of Chatham County that cannot be incorporated into any city without legislative action by the state.

"So while the refinery is now in my fire district, it is not in my city," Long said. "We were still in the process of working with them to complete a pre-plan."

Although no formal mutual aid association exists covering the Savannah region, Long said area fire chiefs and emergency agencies have recently been increasingly conscientious about working together to provide aid to neighboring responders when needed.

"I've been able to work very well with all the other chiefs," he said. "We've done a lot of multi agency training. We're able to know what resources are available to us within the three surrounding counties."

Long needed almost all those resources in Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties to deal with the events of February 7. At 7:19 p.m., an explosion and fire ripped through the refinery's packing area, a four-story structure built around the storage silos. In this area, processed sugar was bagged then sent off to the railcars to be transported.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which has launched a major investigation, has preliminarily concluded that the explosion was caused by combustible sugar dust. When dust builds to dangerous levels in industrial worksites, it can become fuel for fires and explosions. Combustible dust can come from many sources, such as sugar, flour, feed, plastics, wood, rubber, furniture, textiles, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, dyes, coal and metals.

Rushing to the scene of the explosion Long first spotted the rising column of smoke from 3½ miles (5.6 kilometers) away. The weather was clear and calm, with most of the smoke rising straight up.

While en route, he wasted no time calling in help from neighboring agencies.

"I brought in Garden City and the airport fire department, both of which border us," Long said. "I also called the Pooler Fire Department and, of course, the Savannah Fire Department, which is a large municipal department."

Firefighters from Port Wentworth's closest fire station, only a mile (1.6 kilometers) away, were already on scene.

"They reported numerous fires, heavy smoke and structural collapse," Long said. "Triage was being set up for a large number of casualties. They were also trying to set up accountability."

Firefighters were not able to immediately assess the extent of the damage to the refinery, he said.

"You've got five-story structures in front of two-story structures," Long said. "Because of the way the refinery is laid out you just can't see the whole facility at once."

Mainly affected was a four-story structure used for packaging, located in the center of the refinery. Heavy flames were apparent on the third and fourth floors with spot fires on the second floor. Fire raged in four or five different locations on the first floor. Lids had blown off two sugar storage silos. A packing area in front of the distribution warehouse was also showing heavy fire.

Beside the area affected by the collapse, responders were concerned about 150,000 gallons (570,000 liters) of diesel fuel in storage on site.

"Most of what we did that first night was just trying to contain the fire," Long said. "We were concerned about the collapse and the amount of water that we were throwing into the area while trying to conduct search and rescue."

Most of the employees caught in the blast were able to escape afterward with only minor problems with debris.

"If they had debris on them it was only a small amount," Long said. "Basically, they were just able to walk out of the heavily damaged areas, thanks mainly to the safety equipment employees were required to wear – hard hats, safety glasses and safety boots. Still, there were a lot of burn injuries to the chest and leg areas."

Responders spent the early minutes of the emergency quickly moving the walking wounded into a safe zone away from the collapsed structure.

"We had an outstanding response from local medical personnel," Long said. "When the call went out it was just past shift change at the three area hospitals, including the Level One trauma center in Savannah. We had a trauma surgeon and nurses transported to the scene."

Only three miles (4.8 k) away, the headquarters for a local ambulance service dispatched their supervisors as well as personnel to the scene. All of this was done within the first 20 minutes of the emergency, Long said.

Despite the number of different departments involved, radio inoperability was not a problem. The entire region uses an 800 trunking system.

"We had five fire ground channels that were assigned to us and seven different frequencies we were operating off of," Long said. "We had just installed a new dispatching system in January. We had four different dispatchers assigned to us."


Combustible sugar dust was blamed for the blast. - Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard.

Combustible sugar dust was blamed for the blast.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard.

Most emergency situations are handled locally, but when a major incident happens help may be needed from other jurisdictions, the state and the federal government. The National Incident Management System was developed so responders from different jurisdictions and disciplines can work together better to respond to natural disasters and emergencies, including acts of terrorism. NIMS benefits include a unified approach to incident management; standard command and management structures; and emphasis on preparedness, mutual aid and resource management.

"We put NIMS into immediate effect," Long said. "The other departments fell in line based on their backgrounds and basic qualifications. There were no egos, no problems and no communications issues."

Arriving in those early minutes were personnel and apparatus from the nearby fire departments. Most important were the big aerial apparatus supplied by the Savannah Fire Department, Long said. But water to supply the arriving apparatus was not immediately available.

"The blast damaged the water line to the refinery's fire suppression system," Long said. "We had to bring tugboats in on the Savannah River. Equipped with pumps, they were able to supply the aerials by drafting from the river." The Savannah area does not have a fully operational heavy fire fighting fire boat.

However, safely conducting search and rescue operations would require even more water than that. Locating a distant hydrant still working, Long asked Effingham County firefighters to organize a tanker shuttle.

"They were able to bring us five 3,500-gallon (13,200-liter) tankers," he said. "We put a pumper at the hydrant and then got the water department to increase the water flow. We were able to keep a 75-foot (23 meter) aerial ladder operational for seven hours. Effingham County shuttles water better than anybody I've ever seen."

Twenty-eight separate fire suppression operations and search and rescue missions were completed the first night thanks largely to a consistent water supply, Long said.

Responders commandeered an office at the refinery to establish an incident command post.

"That gave us room to stretch out the diagrams and set up the accountability officer, the logistics officer and the planning officer," Long said. "Each one was given their own quadrant inside this large room. We were able to better coordinate and know exactly what was going on throughout the entire refinery."

A second incident command tasked with search and rescue operations was established next to the first.

"Teams were assigned to section commanders," Long said. "Each commander was assigned a very limited, specific area to search, and then told to report back. While conducting search and rescue they were also making damage assessments. We were able to pull seven more employees out."

Helicopter landing zones were soon established to bring in medical flights from as far away as Augusta. Long was also able to activate medical resources from adjoining counties.

"We had 56 EMS units at our disposal," he said. "Seven of the injured were flown immediately and 47 more transported by ground transport, all within the first 58 minutes of the emergency."

Accountability with regard to identifying those rescued and missing was established within two hours. A separate area of the incident command center was set aside for the refinery manager and shift superintendent to coordinate accountability, dispatching plant personnel to area hospitals to obtain the names of patients transported.

"The Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta is the regional burn center for Georgia, and it is about two hours away," Long said. "Several of the severely burned were flown to Augusta, so it took that much time to get some accountability."

Another delay in establishing the employees present at the time of the blast related to problems with the refinery's electronic accountability system.

"Whenever an employee comes to work their name goes into an electronic database," Long said. "The problem was that the power station on scene was blown. So, we had to take their electronic files to another location to be downloaded."

Aside from refinery workers, two contractors had personnel on the scene. Contacting supervisors for those companies to establish accountability also took several hours.

By comparison, the search for the missing took many days. For GSAR, the regional urban search and rescue team, the refinery fire and collapse were only the second time the team had been activated. The first time was an out-of-state operation related to Hurricane Katrina. Rescuers used search dogs and special cameras lowered into voids in the collapsed structure.

Four days later, smoldering fires continued to hamper efforts to find at least two missing workers. To combat the silo fires, a helicopter used by Chatham County for mosquito control and wildland fire fighting made more than 120 water drops using a 120-gallon (450 liter) bucket. The attempt proved unsuccessful.

"The pilot was very precise, dropping the water right into the opening from about 10 feet (3 meters) above the silos," Long said. "It just wasn't enough water for the temperatures we were fighting. Most of it would steam off before it actually hit."

Of the two 40-foot(12-meter)-diameter silos involved, one was filled to 55 feet (16 meters) and other to 75 feet (23 meters). Thermal imaging showed that a 10- to 12-foot layer at the top was burning at 4,000 degrees F (2,200 degrees C). The water dumps were only able to lower that temperature to 2,800 degrees F (1,500 degrees C).

By Wednesday the 13th, the area left to be searched had been narrowed to roughly 200 square feet (60 meters) in what had formerly been a second-floor break room. Meanwhile, Williams F&HC prepared to attack the silo fires using special equipment flown in from Texas.

"We do have a good plan that we do believe is going to be effective," said Chauncey Naylor, emergency service vice president for Williams F&HC.

Using pumps capable of 6,000 gpm (22,700 L), the Williams F&HC team planned to clamp monitor nozzles at the top of the silos and shoot foam and water into the fires below. The result lowered the temperature at the top of the stored sugar to 70 degrees F (21 degrees C).

The last fires in the refinery were extinguished on Thursday. That night responders found the body of the refinery's packaging manager, the last of eight workers missing after the initial explosion to be found.

In total, Port Wentworth firefighters spent eight days on duty at the refinery. Still, it was at least 20 days before the department got back to a normal schedule, Long said.

"If the investigators want to go into certain areas of the damaged refinery that are still dangerous our firefighters are escorting them."


On March 12, CSB board member and interim executive William E. Wright testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee in support of a comprehensive standard for combustible dust, as recommended by the CSB's 2006 Combustible Dust Hazard Study.

Regular cleaning and removal of accumulated dust, using safe and proper methods — commonly referred to as housekeeping — is important for reducing the likelihood of dust explosions, Wright said. Before the explosion the Port Wentworth refinery had a regular housekeeping and cleanliness program to maintain food quality and safety and to protect workers from slips and other injuries.

Dust explosions in sugar refineries have happened before. In November, an explosion blew out windows and started a fire at a historic sugar refinery on Baltimore's Inner Harbor. No serious injuries were reported. Authorities report that employees were working on a dust collection unit at the time of the explosion.

However, the explosion in Port Wentworth took that potential risk to a new level.

"This is the first time as far as we have been able to discover that an explosion of this size has occurred in an industrial sugar refinery," Long said.

Debate continues at the state and federal level over the risk of combustible dust explosions and the possible need for new regulations. Yet, as much as possible, the owners of the Port Wentworth refinery had been diligent in preparing to deal with an emergency of such magnitude if it ever happened, Long said.

"Their records were up to date and accurate," he said. "They were adamant that they should be as prepared as they could be for such an incident."

Editor's note: This after-action review appeared in "Disasters Man-Made" by David White and Anton Riecher that was published in 2011.