Work continues at refinery as blast investigation begins

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SAVANNAH, Ga. --- The federal Chemical Safety Board this week enters a new stage in its investigation into the cause and sequence of the Feb. 7 explosion and fire that killed 13 people at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth.

Cranes will lift damaged equipment -- such as a bucket elevator, some dust collectors and packaging machines -- out of the crumpled packaging building to allow for closer inspection.

"We'll lift it out and put it in set-down areas so it can be examined," said Stephen Selk, manager of investigations for the chemical board. "Right now, you can't get up there."

Limited access is hampering the investigation, which has determined where some of the explosions occurred but not in what order.

"We have to make the site safe for entry," Mr. Selk said. "It's still a very dangerous site. It's expected to take two months to lift all that out."

On Friday, Imperial CEO John Sheptor gave reporters their first tour of the plant since the explosion.

Looking at the tangle of twisted metal, Mr. Sheptor marveled that employees not only escaped, but also that they were able to go back in to pull out co-workers.

Imperial has called 225 of its 371 workers back to duty. With the packaging area destroyed, however, most aren't doing their normal jobs.

On what passes for an ordinary day now, one crew works in the warehouse, where about 8 million pounds of sugar wait to be shipped out. Before it can go, the thousands of pallets of sugar must be checked for damage.

Mr. Sheptor pointed to a nearby pallet of 5-pound Dixie Crystal bags as an example. The top layer was covered in dust and flecked with burnt sugar. Workers will remove such damaged packages, save the sugar for reprocessing, and re-wrap the pallets.

Some employees now spend their workdays escorting investigators --- from OSHA, the chemical board and insurance companies --- who fill four new trailers on site. A fifth trailer houses Imperial's lawyers.

Others are working at a Garden City warehouse that is receiving shipments of sugar from Imperial's Louisiana plant.

Imperial expects to restart the Port Wentworth refinery this year, Mr. Sheptor said. The exact date depends on when the investigations are done. Then the plant can resume the bulk rail shipments that make up 70 percent of its business, Mr. Sheptor said.


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