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Blast from the past: Courier-Journal coverage of Corbin factory explosion

Blast from the past: Courier-Journal coverage of Corbin factory explosion

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In 2003, I rushed to the scene of a terrible workplace explosion -- one of the worst in decades. I stayed for months, on and off, writing about the explosion, its victims, and its cause.

Ultimately the company was at fault, and fined. But the fine was small and suing on behalf of the workers was almost impossible. There was little justice in the way the tragedy unfolded over the years.
In 2003, I rushed to the scene of a terrible workplace explosion -- one of the worst in decades. I stayed for months, on and off, writing about the explosion, its victims, and its cause.

Ultimately the company was at fault, and fined. But the fine was small and suing on behalf of the workers was almost impossible. There was little justice in the way the tragedy unfolded over the years.

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Published by: Michael Lindenberger on Apr 18, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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1 of 20 DOCUMENTSThe Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY)February 21, 2003 Friday Ky and kentucky Editions
Corbin blast injures dozens;Severe burn cases overwhelm local hospitals
BYLINE:
LINDENBERGER MICHAEL BRUGGERS JAMES CARROLL JAMES MAIMON ALAN,mlindenberger@courier-journal.com
SECTION:
NEWS; Pg. 1A
LENGTH:
1449 wordsByline: MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGERSource: The Courier-JournalDateline: CORBIN, Ky.An early morning explosion at a manufacturing plant sent 44 people to hospitals- 10 with life-threatening burns - and forced the evacuation of scores of nearbyhomes.Officials were unable to immediately determine the danger posed by the chemicalssent into the air by the flames, and Kentucky State Police - fearing a cyanidecloud - closed Interstate 75 for 13 miles and prepared to carry out moreevacuations.But that initial response was scaled back when officials were reassured by plantofficials that the chemicals at the site did not pose a significant threat. Theevacuation area was reduced to within a half-mile radius of the plant and theinterstate was reopened before noon.More than 150 first-shift workers were at the CTA Acoustics plant, which makesinsulation products used in the auto industry, about 7:30 a.m. when a loud blastshook the building and employees saw flames and smoke."We thought something might have hit the building," said mold operator CurtisCobb, 39. "Our supervisor started telling us to get out, and I just tried not topanic."Twenty-six workers were taken to area hospitals, which in turn sent 14 patientsby air to university burn centers in Nashville, Louisville and Lexington.The intensity of the burns suffered by some of the most severely injuredpatients overwhelmed the local hospital, officials said. Some patients requiredventilators to breathe and suffered burns covering 70 percent to 90 percent oftheir bodies, said John Henson, chief executive officer of Baptist RegionalMedical Center in Corbin.Page 1
 
THE PLANT has 550 workers,making it one of Corbin's top employers. The fate of those jobs won't be knownuntil the company can determine what needs to be done to rebuild, said JimTomaw, chief counsel and spokesman for the company. He said the plant sustained"extensive damage.""We really don't know what caused it," Tomaw said. "We don't know exactly whathappened yet."The explosion left a 40-foot hole in the ground, and the plant's walls wereconsumed by the fire.Joe Bradshaw, Knox County's emergency management director, said that by 2 p.m.firefighters had "contained 98 percent" of the fire, and that the flames wereout by 6 p.m. Residents were allowed back into their homes by early evening.Residents more than a mile or two from the plant said they did not hear theexplosion, but news about it - and rumors of deadly gases - spread quickly,residents and emergency officials said."We've found that sometimes containing the rumors are more difficult thancontaining the incident itself," said Bradshaw. Corbin sits within theboundaries of three counties - Knox, Whitley and Laurel - and officials from allthree coordinated the response.In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, some emergency personnel voicedconcern that the gases being released by the flames included cyanide and othertoxins.Lt. L.M. Rudzinski of the Kentucky State Police said those early concernsprompted the decision to close the interstate until company officials assuredemergency workers that no toxic fumes were being released.Tomaw said he and others consulted the chemists who make the chemicals used atthe plant and were confident they posed no serious danger to the public.However, official samples of air quality weren't taken until about 3 p.m., afterU.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials arrived, said Mark York,spokesman for the Kentucky Natural Resources and Environmental ProtectionCabinet.Carl Terry, a spokesman for the EPA in Atlanta, said the agency was still tryingto determine the amount of chemicals released.A HAZARDOUS chemical inven-tory that the company provided to emergency management officials in April 2000identified a combination of phenol - used in making plastics, rubber andadhesives - and formaldehyde - used in resin manufacturing and pressed-woodproducts.The company said at the time that it stored 128,000 pounds of that materialyear-round.According to various government fact sheets, both chemicals are potentiallyhighly toxic. Eight-hour exposure limits set by the Occupational Safety andPage 2Corbin blast injures dozens;Severe burn cases overwhelm local hospitals TheCourier-Journal (Louisville, KY) February 21, 2003 Friday Ky and kentuckyEditions
 
Health Administration for both chemicals are 5 parts per million for phenol and.75 ppm for formaldehyde."Both are nasty poisons," said Dean Blauser, a Michigan-based hazardousmaterials specialist who has trained emergency responders. Along with otherchemicals on site that potentially could have been involved in the fire,yesterday's explosion would have presented firefighters with an extremelydifficult situation, he said."My hat goes off to any firefighter who goes into a situation like this,"Blauser said.But injuries other than burns suffered in the plant were minor, fire and healthofficials said.The only emergency worker who was injured was a firefighter who got debris in aneye, Henson said.Some people - including employees and neighbors - went to hospitals withbreathing problems, but those were minor, Henson said. Ten such people wereexamined and sent home, he said.Ruby Hoskins said she and her husband, who live less than a mile from the plant,were told to evacuate shortly after 9 a.m., and she could smell the gases asthey pulled out of the garage. But she said it was fear of a second explosion -not the fumes - that prompted them to leave.Her husband, Millard Hoskins, said he was walking his chihuahua, Missy, when heheard the explosion. "I couldn't tell where it was coming from exactly, until Isaw the smoke," he said.Deborah Elliott, another neighbor, said she was roused by loud knocking on herdoor. "I looked out of the window and I could see a firefighter running down thesteps. I grabbed four packs of cigarettes and got out," she said.BRADSHAW SAID the extent ofthe danger posed by the initial plume of smoke won't be known untilinvestigators can determine what chemicals burned. But he said the phenol andformaldehyde posed no significant danger to those outside the immediate blastarea."If you went up and put your head in the smoke itself, then you might have someheadaches and respiratory problems," Bradshaw said.Tomaw said company officials - including private hazardous materials inspectors- had yet to be allowed back into the plant by yesterday evening.Officials from 31 local, state and federal agencies responded to the explosion.In addition to firefighters, state and local police and EMS personnel, agentsfrom the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms responded to thescene.U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers, R5th District, arranged for an emergency chemicalresponse team from the Department of Transportation in Washington to be flown tothe scene, and a military crew from Louisville - specialists in sampling airPage 3Corbin blast injures dozens;Severe burn cases overwhelm local hospitals TheCourier-Journal (Louisville, KY) February 21, 2003 Friday Ky and kentuckyEditions

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