PORT WENTWORTH — Broken equipment inside a steel conveyor belt sparked the first explosion at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth on a mild winter night 10 years ago.
The initial blast rocked the building, jolting more dust into the air. And like so much tiny kindling, that dust ignited seconds later, creating a fireball visible miles away.
Eight workers died that night and six more eventually succumbed to their burns. Dozens others were injured but survived, 14 of them spending months at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta.
Those lives lost from the Feb. 7, 2008, tragedy were Eric Barnes, John Calvin Butler Jr., Truitt Byers, Alphonso Fields Sr., Michael Kelly Fields, Malcolm Frazier, McKinley "Von" Habersham Sr., Shelathia "Shon" Harvey, Earl Johnson, Patricia Ann "Pat" Lowe Proctor, Earl Quarterman, Byron Singleton, Tony Thomas and Michael "Big Mike" Williams.
Better housekeeping would have prevented any loss of life, a federal investigation determined.
The tragedy and its aftermath reached deep into the community, in part because it happened at a refinery that had been a major employer here since 1917 and where 121 people were working that night.
"Growing up here, who doesn't know somebody from the Savannah sugar refinery?" said Savannah assistant fire chief William Handy, 45, a captain that February night in 2008. "You knew somebody who worked there or you knew somebody who knew somebody who worked there."
The repercussions of the fire reflected those connections as the community waited first for bodies to be recovered, then for survivors to come home from the burn center, and finally, and in some cases in vain, for restitution, accountability and measures to prevent the next disaster.
Immediately after the fire, the federal U.S. Chemical Safety Board and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated. Both inquiries found company officials knew for years about deadly hazards at the Port Wentworth site, but didn't correct them.
The probes concluded that highly combustible sugar dust, which hung in the air and piled up knee-high in places, fueled the explosions and fire. OSHA issued 124 safety citations at Imperial, most of which the agency called "willful," meaning the company acted with "plain indifference to, or intentional disregard for, employee safety and health."
Imperial Sugar agreed in July 2010 to pay more than $4 million for safety violations at its Port Wentworth refinery as part of a company-wide $6 million settlement with regulators. It also accepted a three-year program of intensive OSHA oversight at its Port Wentworth refinery.
In the agreement, Imperial admitted no wrongdoing, but no longer contested OSHA's citations.
OSHA did request that the office of U.S. Attorney Edward J. Tarver consider criminal charges, but Tarver announced in February 2013 that he would not pursue a prosecution of Imperial or any of its executives, citing insufficient evidence and a lack of a felony provision under the prevailing statute.
The Texas-based Imperial Sugar rebuilt its Port Wentworth plant, resuming the shipment of bulk sugar in July 2009 and reopening its blast-damaged section in November of that year. The company touted the new plant as the most modern and efficient sugar refinery in the country, with state-of-the-art technologies and safety. Its reopening in otherwise bleak economic times near the start of the Recession brought relief to the workers who depended on it for their livelihoods.
"A lot of those guys were in their 40s and 50s and you just don't find another job at that age if that's where you've been your whole life. People were worried," Glenn "Pig" Jones, former mayor of Port Wentworth, said recently. "I remember when the CEO got up there and they committed to reopening and I know that was a sigh of relief at least at a personal standpoint when people were realizing down the road when they said they were going to rebuild."
Switzerland-based agribusiness giant Louis Dreyfus Commodities bought Imperial in 2010, including the refinery in Port Wentworth.
The $6 million settlement with OSHA set the stage for civil cases for damages to proceed.
Forty-four civil cases for damages stemming from the inferno were filed in Chatham County State Court before Judge Hermann Coolidge. He ruled in August 2010 that in several cases sufficient issues of fact existed for juries to determine damage claims, but none of the cases ever went before a jury. Instead, all cases settled out of court or were resolved. All of the settlements including language preventing disclosure of what defendants agreed to pay.
Savannah attorney Brent Savage, who had a dozen of the cases, said at the time that defendants "have played hardball to keep these people from every getting properly compensated" for their claims.
The settlements "were an attempt to do the best we could for a devastating loss," Savage said last month.
And Savannah attorney Mark Tate said he represented 15 individuals in State Court suits in the case and arrived at settlements for each, which allowed them to "begin to put their lives back together."
Two other suits were filed before Chatham County Superior Court Judge Louisa Abbot. Both were settled after protracted motions and appeals.
Subsequently, Savage filed suit in State Court for the families of five children of victims of the fire and explosion after discovering that money held in trust for them in Chatham County Probate Court was missing through the misconduct of fired clerk Kim Birge. Those claims totaling $81,109 were later recovered through litigation and restored to the victims.
Birge would plead guilty in U.S. District Court in July 2015 to stealing $232,000 from the court. Included in those were 33 individual victims, including some Imperial Sugar claimants. U.S. District Judge William T. Moore Jr. sentenced Birge, 63, in October 2015 to six years in federal prison and ordered to make restitution of more than $751,000 for her admissions.
Labor protections languish
Even before the Imperial explosion, there was a push to correct the problem of combustible dust in the workplace nationwide. The CSB called for a new combustible dust standard in 2006, but OSHA responded instead with a program that called mainly for increased inspections. After 14 people died at Imperial, however, OSHA announced in April 2009 that it was initiating a comprehensive rulemaking on combustible dust. The process progressed through early 2010 with an announcement of the agency's intent to promulgate a dust standard plus a comment period and a series of stakeholder meetings.
But the next required step in the federal rulemaking process, the convening of a Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act panel, was postponed eight times over the course of five years. During that time the CSB openly criticized OSHA's responses to its recommendations on combustible dust, with its board designating a Combustible Dust Standard as a "Most Wanted" regulation.
On March 30, 2017, OSHA withdrew its rulemaking proposal to create a standard for combustible dust in general industry due to "resource constraints and other priorities."
Meanwhile, workers continue to die in combustible dust incidents. Since the Imperial explosion, the CSB has completed three combustible dust investigations that killed eight workers. Another investigation is ongoing into an explosion at a milling company in Wisconsin that claimed five lives on May 31, 2017.
"Had OSHA implemented the first CSB recommendations for a combustible dust standard in 2006 and if industry had followed those requirements, many of the severe dust incidents that followed . might have been prevented," said then-CSB chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso in a video the board produced in 2014.
Local response upgrades
The emergency response to the Imperial blaze did bring about some changes to safeguard the community, said Savannah assistant fire chief William Handy.
In all, 22 different departments and a total of 232 firefighters responded to the fire with the Port Wentworth department responding first and establishing command. Savannah, offering mutual aid, arrived quickly from a station 4 at West Bay Street near I-516.
Within 91 minutes, every worker who survived the blast had been transported from the scene. No new injuries were reported during the firefighting, search, rescue, recovery and investigative operations that followed.
Handy himself was a captain assigned to the second-day rescue and recovery effort.
"My personal vivid memory is the magnitude of the devastation," he said. "There were the interior portions of the plant we were going into to perform searches that were just a pile of rubber. You had foot-thick concrete floors buckled. Holes were in the concrete. A building that once had brick on the outside had just a metal framework left."
After the initial night of firefighting officials knew the water supply on site was compromised and called on Williams Fire & Hazard Control to bring in specialized equipment to pump water from the Savannah River. Capable of pouring up more than 5,000 gallons of water per minute it put out the remaining molten sugar fires in the plant's silos.
Handy said that effort led to the formation of a consortium of riverfront industries that partnered with the Savannah Fire Department to later buy and maintain the same type of equipment. It was a crucial part of fighting Savannah's next large riverfront fire when in February of 2014 fire burned 1,800 tons of crude rubber at a Georgia Ports Authority warehouse.
No one was injured.
"We can tap into the Savannah River, which is a good supply, and we have pumps that can pull that out and use it for firefighting," Handy said.
Communication upgrades also followed the Imperial fire. During that fire, the multiple EMS and fire departments that responded could each communicate on only one radio channel. The 911 Center also now has the ability to connect different channels.
Firefighters have to glean what lessons they can from a fire like Imperial because it's impossible to stage an exercise of that scope.
"You don't train for that magnitude," Handy said. "How do you anticipate that magnitude?"
WJCL contributed to this story.