Fireball Was Seen Outside the Building: Mayor

Explosion felt in surrounding towns

By Meredith Mazol, LeAnne Gendreau, Debra Alfarone, Ryan Hanrahan and Jeff Stoecker
|  Monday, Feb 8, 2010  |  Updated 4:12 PM EDT
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Walls were blown out and metal was mangled in the Middletown blast.

Walls were blown out and metal was mangled in the Middletown blast.

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At Least Two Dead and Dozens Injured

Crews are digging through rubble at the site of a massive explosion in Middletown and looking for victims.
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On Monday afternoon, the victims bodies were removed from the site of the devastating Middletown power plant explosion that killed five people. They have been taken to the medical examiner's office.

At 3:30 p.m. Middletown Mayor Sebastian N. Giuliano said a fireball was scene outside the Kleen Energy Plant on River Road in Middletown on Sunday. He believes the people killed were both inside and outside the plant.

Now the search continues for where the explosion originated and what caused it. A search warrant is in effect for the next three days.

On Monday, the mayor said they had ruled out "intentional acts of criminality," including terrorism, but they have to assume criminal negligence until it is ruled out.    

Throughout the day, there were conflicting reports on whether people could still be trapped in the rubble at a site where piles of debris are 10 to 12 feet high.  

Giuliano assured that everyone who was on a list of those working at the site on Sunday has been accounted for. In addition to the five killed, 12 people sustained injuries serious enough to require hospitalization.

One of the perils officials and emergency crews face is an unstable building. The blast left huge pieces of metal that once encased the plant peeling off its sides. A large swath of the structure was blackened and surrounded by debris, but the building, its roof and its two smokestacks were still standing.

Falling debris and wind gusts are concerns, according to the mayor’s office. Because of that, search efforts were halted at 2:30 a.m. and the search did not resume.

On Monday morning, Deputy Fire Marshal Al Santostefano told NBC Connecticut that rescue crews still haven't been able to search a section of the plant that remains unstable.  Flights over the site were also suspended.

The tragic incident occured as workers purged gas lines at plant. A flame-burning device that was left on, possibly a heater, at the power plant likely caused the explosion, a source told NBC Connecticut.

Santostefano said 50 to 60 people were in the area at the time of the explosion. Almost two dozen people were injured and some were thrown 30 to 40 feet, suffering extremity and head injuries, officials said during a news conference on Sunday afternoon.

“They were working, they were testing. I just heard there was a gas explosion. I'm getting all kinds of phone calls (from) union brothers. It's horrible. We got people up there. They got little kids at home. We lost them,” Paul Venti, a plant employee said, then broke down, crying. 

Giuliano said one of the issues officials faced was that several contractors were working at the scene.
 
“To be able to sort all that out will take some time,” Giuliano said.  
 
Giuliano gave his assurance that there is no public health threat. Officials from the health department and State Department of Environmental Protection were at the site and found no issue with air quality or public drinking supplies, Giuliano said.
 
This is an industrial accident, the mayor said. No terrorism is expected. The public is asked to stay away from the area to allow emergency access vehicles to proceed expeditiously.
 
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is sending a seven-person team to the site to investigate. They are expected to arrive mid-day on Monday.
 
At a public meeting on Thursday, Feb. 4, the CSB issued urgent recommendations that the national fuel gas codes be changed to improve safety when gas pipes are being purged - cleared of air - during maintenance or the installation of new piping. The Board’s urgent recommendations resulted from the CSB’s ongoing federal investigation into the June 9, 2009, natural gas explosion at the ConAgra Slim Jim production facility in Garner, North Carolina, which caused four deaths, three critical life-threatening burn injuries, and other injuries that sent a total of 67 people to the hospital.
 
Gov. M. Jodi Rell activated the Emergency Operations Center in Hartford and the state Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, Department of Public Health, the National Guard and the State Police are staffing it. A center was also set up for family members at Middletown City Hall.    
 
Early in the morning, there was a halt in the search. One of the issues, Gov. M. Jodi Rell said, was that the dogs were getting tired.
 
“I asked, ‘Can we keep going? But I was told the dogs were tired and they get cold and lose their scent,” she said.
 
Massachusetts also offered additional K-9s, which Rell said was a huge help.
 
At the scene, Rell walked to the back of the building to take a closer look at the damage.
 
“There were steel beams that frankly looked like pretzels. Not the straight, steel beams you see when you are watching a new building being constructed,” she said.
 
As Rell stood behind the building, planes flew overhead to get an overhead view of the debris, and that raised more problems.
 
“We could visibly see and feel the building shake, at least what was left of the building.
 
There was a lot of wind up there and that’s when we knew a no fly zone was in order. The building is too unstable.”
 
People in Durham, Wallingford, Middlefield, East Hampton and as far away as Madison and Old Saybrook reported feeling effects of the explosion.
 
There was some controversy in the region about the plant. You can read more about it here.
 
The Red Cross has opened a line for families of workers or families who were close by and impacted by the blast. For information, call 860-347-2577.

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