CEO Blames Sugar Dust for Georgia Refinery Blast Injuring Dozens, Leaving 9 Missing

An explosion and fire at a sprawling sugar refinery rattled this Savannah suburb Thursday night, severely injuring dozens of people and sending authorities into a nearby river to search for possible victims, officials said.

No deaths were immediately reported in the blast, which a company official said was probably caused by sugar dust. Ninety-five to 100 people were believed to be working in the area of the blast, and six were unaccounted for, said Chief Michael Berkow of the Savannah-Chatham County police.

"As far as we know, it was a sugar dust explosion," Imperial Sugar CEO John Sheptor said. The blast happened in a silo where refined sugar is stored until it is packaged, he said.

At least 40 people were taken to hospitals, and eight of them were flown to a burn center in Augusta, 130 miles up the Savannah River, he said.

"There was fire all over the building," said Nakishya Hill, a machine operator who said she escaped from the third floor of the refinery, on the Savannah River.

"All I know is, I heard a loud boom and everything came down," said Hill, who was uninjured except for blisters on her elbow.

"When I got up, I went down and found a couple of people and we climbed out of there from the third floor to the first floor. Half of the floor was gone. The second floor was debris, the first floor was debris.

"All I could do when I got down was take off running," she said.

Dr. Jay Goldstein of Memorial University Medical Center said 30 to 35 patients were being treated, all in critical condition and most with "significant burns." Candler Hospital reported three patients in serious condition.

A triage center was set up at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Port Wentworth, where Savannah-Chatham police Maj. Gerry Long said 28 had been sent on to hospitals.

"They are still looking for and bringing people out," she said about 9:30 p.m.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Lynn said shipping was shut down on the Savannah River while the waterway was searched for potential victims.

"It's a large facility, and there is still a significant amount of fire," said Clayton Scott, assistant director of the Chatham County Emergency Management Agency.

The plant is a Savannah landmark. Imperial, based in Sugar Land, Texas, acquired Savannah Foods & Industries, which produced Dixie Crystals, in 1997. The acquisition doubled the size of the company, making it the largest processor and refiner of sugar in the country, according to the company Web site.

Imperial markets some of the country's leading consumer brands — Imperial, Dixie Crystals and Holly — as well as supplying sugar and sweetener products to industrial food manufacturers.