An Effingham County man is said to be recovering in a burn treatment center at an Augusta hospital after being injured in Thursday night’s explosion at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port Wentworth.
Paul Seckinger of Clyo was taken to the Joseph M. Still Jr. Burn Center at Doctors Hospital in Augusta and is listed in critical condition.
At least two other Effingham residents who work at the plant escaped unharmed after the blast that triggered a fire and destroyed a large portion of the facility.
About 100 people were in the refinery when the explosion, believed to be caused by sugar dust, occurred at approximately 7:30 p.m. More than 40 victims were rushed to Savannah hospitals, most to the trauma unit at Memorial Health University Medical Center. Approximately 17 people were eventually taken to the Still Burn Center or the Medical College of Georgia’s burn unit, also in Augusta.
As of late Friday afternoon, firefighting and rescue crews were said to have discovered six bodies that morning as they contained the blaze enough to advance through the refinery. Sgt. Mike Wilson of the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department confirmed four bodies were found and removed from the wreckage Friday afternoon.
There were reports earlier Friday that as many as 17 people were unaccounted for before the discovery of the bodies. Officials revised that figure to four missing Friday afternoon.
The fire did a great deal of damage to the facility, Savannah Fire Chief Charles Middleton said late Thursday night.
The damage was enough that the building wasn’t stable enough for firefighting crews to get to some of the fire.
“You really don’t see something like this,” said Effingham Fire and Rescue Lt. Walter Wright. “A lot of the buildings are twisted metal and rubble now.”
Imperial Sugar CEO John Sheptor was at the refinery and had just left an employee meeting when the explosion in a storage silo took place.
Effingham County Fire and Rescue was called in and sent 20 firefighters and five trucks to the scene, according to Wright. The department also dispatched an engine to both Pooler and Port Wentworth to cover any emergency in those cities as their departments were pulled in to help battle the massive blaze.
“We’ll be there for a while,” said Wright, who returned home briefly Friday for a quick rest before going back to the blast site.
Fire crews were being rotated to keep firefighters from becoming exhausted.
“We want to keep fresh guys in there,” Wright said.
Effingham crews and trucks also were used in a tanker shuttle as water needed to battle the flames became in short supply.
“We had four or five trucks doing that,” Wright said.
Tankers carried water to a portable pond for crews to use on the fires. There were at least three separate fires resulting from the explosion. According to Wright, from 11 p.m. Thursday to 7 a.m. Friday, Effingham crews moved 100,000 gallons of water for fire suppression.
The explosion also ruptured the plant’s sprinkler system, according to Wilson, leaving as much as 8 feet of water in some places.
“The challenge is for the firefighters to get through that water,” he said.
Imperial bought Savannah Foods in 1997, acquiring the refinery and the Dixie Crystals brand. The sugar refinery was then the second largest in the world and has been in operation at the Port Wentworth site since 1917. The refinery sits on more than 100 acres. It is not known how long the plant will be closed.