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Overheated Reactor to Blame for Florida Explosion, CSB Says

Dubbed as “one of the most powerful explosions ever examined” by the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), the fatal blast that killed four workers at a production site in Jacksonville, Fla., most likely resulted from an overheated chemical reactor.

A team of CSB investigators who surveyed remnants of the Dec. 19 explosion at T2 Laboratories said the reactor was used to mix chemicals to produce methylcyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl, an additive widely used to boost the octane rating of gasoline.

The reactor vessel ruptured during the first step of the production process, when a mix of organic materials reacted with metallic sodium. After the rupture, the reactor’s flammable contents mixed with the air, producing large amounts of thermal energy that contributed to the explosion.

The blast was so powerful, according to authorities, that it also injured a dozen others off-site, some as far as 750 feet away from the reactor. Media accounts described the explosion as a “sharp, explosive blast, like a gunshot, followed by black smoke and a hellish inferno.” An injured worker remains hospitalized.

Plant Site “Incredibly Dangerous for First Responders”

The chemicals used by T2 Laboratories caused Jacksonville fire officials to consider the environment “incredibly dangerous for the first responders,” according to media reports. The Associated Press reported that more than 70 firefighters and every hazardous-materials unit in Jacksonville reported to the scene.

The reactor was designed for high pressure and had steel walls three inches thick, explained Robert Hall, who is leading the CSB investigation. Under normal temperatures and conditions, it would require a pressure of several thousand pounds per square inch for the reactor to rupture.

“We recovered large portions of the vessel's top head – weighing hundreds of pounds – approximately one quarter-mile away,” said Hall. “This gives an idea of the tremendous power of the explosion.”

He noted that in 2002, CSB conducted a major study of similar incidents, identifying 167 serious reactive chemical accidents that occurred in the United States over a 20-year period. The board made a number of safety recommendations as a result of that study.

To better understand what caused the reactor to explode, Hall said the CSB team plans to conduct testing by replicating T2’s process and measuring the amount of heat and pressure generated should the reaction run out of control. In addition, the board will take a comprehensive look at T2’s safety practices, as well as regulations, codes and industry standards to see if improvements can be made to avoid similar incidents in the future.

Hall predicted that due to the many hazardous chemicals that remained at the plant site, it could take months to complete the investigation.

For more information, see CSB Investigates Deadly Florida Blast.

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