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Explosion Rocks N.C. Factory, Kills at least Three Workers, Injures Dozens More

Some residents of Kinston, N.C. thought a plane had crashed into the local airport, while others were certain they were experiencing a major earthquake. What they felt yesterday afternoon was actually a devastating explosion at a medical supply company that killed at least three workers and sent many more to local hospitals.

The explosion at West Pharmaceutical, which blew out windows across town and rocked the foundations of many buildings in the area, ignited a chemical fire. The smell of acrid smoke filled the air and residents within one mile of the facility were urged to leave their homes until the fire and smoke were contained. There are approximately 25,000 residents in Kinston. Firefighters spent hours bringing the blaze under control, hampered by burning rubber, fires that reignited, several small forest fires caused by the blast and bad weather.

Several workers are still unaccounted for, as the building was unstable and firefighters were initially unable to search for victims.

One witness, Kenneth Heath, called it "a big ball of fire" that was "a frightening thing to see."

Witnesses reported seeing debris flying as high as 400 feet into the air, and the smoke and debris could be seen on the radar screen at the local airport. As many as 37 workers, some of them badly burned, were taken to area hospitals.

The facility employs 255 people and is used to manufacture syringe plungers and intravenous (IV) fitments used for drug delivery systems and compounds rubber materials for distribution to other West manufacturing locations.

Don Morel, president and CEO, West Pharmaceutical Services, admitted to being "stunned by the news" of the incident, adding, "Our overriding concern lies with the well-being and safety of our employees, their loved ones and the surrounding community. We are in the process of gathering information and will issue a more comprehensive statement when we have the facts to share."

The cause of the explosion was not immediately known, and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) is investigating along with the North Carolina Department of Labor and the company.

CSB Chairperson Carolyn Merritt and a team of chemical accident investigators are en route to the scene. CSB Chief Operating Officer Charles Jeffress (former head of both North Carolina and federal OSHA) and Board Member Dr. Andrea Taylor, an industrial hygienist and public health specialist, are part of the CSB group, as well as Stephen Selk, a chemical engineer, who will head the field team.

"[The] explosion was extremely serious… and we will immediately begin investigating the cause of this tragedy. I offer my deep sympathies to those affected by this [event]," said Merritt.

The North Carolina Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Division cited the facility in October for 15 occupational safety and health violations, including one for failure to develop an emergency plan for chemical accidents. The agency issued seven serious citations, which means their was substantial probably that death or serious physical harm could result and the employer knew or should have known of the hazard. Other violations involved lockout/tagout, unguarded equipment and confined space entry. At this point, it is unknown if any of the safety hazards cited by Occupational Safety and Health Division contributed to the explosion or fire.

N.C. Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry said her department is "satisfied" with the company's response to the inspection. "We can't determine anything from [report about the October inspection] that would lead us to believe that had anything to do with what happened there."

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