PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. – An explosion at a sugar refinery that killed nine people was caused by a cloud of sugar dust that ignited beneath the plant's silos, investigators said Friday.
Crews recovered the body of the last worker reported missing from a debris-littered break room late Thursday, bringing the death toll to nine, Port Wentworth Fire Chief Greg Long said. Eight workers died in the blast and another died of burns at a hospital.
Investigators traced the Feb. 7 explosion to a basement area beneath the Imperial Sugar plant's storage silos where refined sugar was loaded onto conveyor belts and transported to the packaging area.
The area was equipped with large fans to suck dust particles out of the air, but investigators still found enough sugar dust there to fuel the blast, said Phil Durham of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He said investigators don't know whether the fans were working and were trying to determine what ignited the dust.
Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John Oxendine, the state's top fire official, said the dust could have been ignited by static electricity, equipment or anything that makes a spark.
"With that much sugar dust in the air, think of it this way: If you have a building and the natural gas is turned on, and then something ignites it, the air is filled with natural gas and you're going to have an explosion — even if you have sprinklers," he said.
Firefighters managed to extinguish the blaze Thursday, a week after the explosion.
The refinery is located on a 160-acre site on the Savannah River upstream from Savannah. About one-eight of the 872,000-square-foot plant was destroyed, Imperial Sugar spokesman Steve Behm said.
John Sheptor, the company's president and CEO, said about 50 of the refinery's 500 employees have returned to work to help ship out bags of sugar that were shielded from the blast and fire. He said the company plans to resume refining raw sugar as soon as possible — though he couldn't say how long that would take.