Arkansas Plant Explodes, Causing Gas Leak, Forcing Evacuations

An explosion at a meat packing plant on Sunday caused an ammonia gas leak that forced 180 people from their homes, but none of those working at the plant was injured, emergency responders said.

The explosion in the western Arkansas town of 4,000 occurred in the freezer section of the Cargill Meat Solutions plant, which makes frozen ground beef patties and steaks, said Renee Preslar, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Emergency Management.

Mark Klein, a spokesman for Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc., said the plant is closed Sundays but that about 20 contractors and a few other employees were at the site at the time of the fire. The plant employs about 800 people, he said.

"Everybody's good. There's been no injuries," said Gina Kinney, a dispatcher with the Logan County Sheriff's Department.

The fire involved an estimated 88,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, plus the plant had 100,000 pounds of nonflammable carbon dioxide, which is used in refrigeration systems, she said.

Late Sunday afternoon, a dark gray plume from the fire still could be seen 10 miles away.
Firefighters were unable to fight the blaze using conventional equipment because of the danger and that they would let it burn itself out.

"That's the safest way to deal with a fire like this," said Preslar. It wasn't immediately known how long that would take.

Logan County emergency manager Don Fairbanks said firefighters might begin to fight the blaze again if pressure gauges on the tanks holding anhydrous ammonia at the plant show normal levels.

Fairbanks said the fire broke out at 10 a.m.

Workers "were doing some welding on some fans," he said. "The welders had put their equipment up and turned around and there was a fire."

Booneville police officers said the evacuations began around 1 p.m.

Cody Moore, an emergency coordinator at Booneville Community Hospital, said the facility's 12 patients were sent to a hospital in Waldron after the evacuation order. He said 50 staffers stood ready to care for any victims.

Nine nursing home residents were among those told to leave the area. They were taken to a nursing home in nearby Greenwood. It was unclear when residents might be allowed to return to their homes.

Meredith Voges, 22, said she heard the explosion while staying at a hotel near the plant.
"The whole factory was ablaze with black smoke flying into the air, plumes of smoke," said Voges, who called the scene chaotic.

Preslar said a hazardous materials team arrived from Fort Smith, 40 miles northwest.
Cargill Inc. has about 2,000 employees in Arkansas, according to its Web site. The Booneville Chamber of Commerce says the plant is the town's largest employer.