Smoldering blaze delays search crew

PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. --- A helicopter dumped thousands of gallons of river water onto a gutted sugar refinery on Monday, trying to douse a smoldering fire that burned more deeply and stubbornly than officials first thought.


But after hours of work, officials made plans to bring in a private fire suppression team to extinguish the blaze at the Imperial Sugar plant, where six workers died and two remained missing after an explosion Thursday.

White smoke wafted from the ravaged plant area after each drop. Then the yellow helicopter headed back to the Savannah River, returning every two minutes or so with more water to dump on sugar smoldering in silos at temperatures of up to 4,000 degrees.

By late in the day, the crews were able to reduce the temperature of molten sugar to about 2,800 degrees. But that was not enough, said Port Wentworth Fire Chief Greg Long.

He said a fire suppression team from North Carolina would arrive early today. The company specializes in putting out oil and silo fires and can use large amounts of water and foam, if needed, to extinguish the blaze.

One of the refinery's three 100-foot storage silos blew up late Thursday, with exploding sugar dust believed to be the cause. Dozens of workers were injured. Fire crews couldn't search for the missing two because hot spots rendered areas of the plant dangerously unstable.

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. Search crews found the body of one of three missing workers Sunday before the search was called off at sunset for the other two.

The fire spread deeper into the sugar silos than first imagined, complicating efforts to put it out, the chief said.

Thermal imaging cameras determined the fire reaches down as much as 10 or 12 feet. Chief Long said firefighters hope to cool and solidify the top layer, forming an oxygen barrier to smother the fire below.

Because the fire is so hot, officials are concerned the silos might collapse.

Sugar was piled about 55 feet high inside one silo. It was almost 80 feet down in the other, Chief Long said.

By early afternoon, more than 22,000 gallons of water had been dumped on the silos.

"If they were to fail and collapse, it would render the rest of the plant unsearchable," Chief Long said.

Once the fire is out, railroad cars near the plant will be moved and debris taken away, allowing searchers to go through the last 5 percent of the plant that had not been searched, he said.

Dump trucks filled with sand, cranes and other ground emergency vehicles were parked in neat rows about 300 yards from the refinery so the smoldering fire could be fought from the air.

The plant is located on a 160-acre site on the river upstream from Savannah. The plant is 872,000 square feet and about 12 percent was destroyed, said company spokesman Steve Behm.

Imperial chief executive officer John Sheptor said the company plans to repair the plant and that workers will be paid while it is rebuilt. He said an engineering team would be on site on Tuesday to determine what needs to be done.



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The foundation is asking for monetary and gas card donations to aid the families of those injured in the fire. Those wishing to donate are asked to call (706) 650-2846.