Chemical Safety Board Updates Accident Investigation

Aerial photos from the day of the explosion.
Aerial photos from the day of the explosion.

Pascagoula survived a "close call" with only minimal damage and minor injuries from an explosion and fire at the First Chemical plant last fall.

That's the word from a team of federal safety experts that's investigating the October 13th accident.

The United States Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation board is in charge of the probe. As one board member explained it, the chemical safety board is to chemical accidents what the National Transportation Safety Board is to plane crashes.

A final report isn't due until summer, but the board updated a crowd of residents, anxious for information.

The crowd quickly discovered that many questions about the accident remain. But one frightening fact was made clear.

"This accident was what we call a close call. The Pascagoula area dodged a bullet on this one. And by that I mean the explosion that resulted from the runaway reaction could have set off far greater chemical releases," said board member, Dr. Gerald Poje.

Investigator, Steve Wallace, shared pictures of the damage to First Chemical and the metal shrapnel that was scattered for up to one third of a mile.

Those investigating the cause deal in technical terms. To the layman, the initial indication suggests a faulty steam valve is partly to blame.

"This heat source likely allowed the material in the vessel to slowly decompose over the next few days and then react violently the morning of October 13th, 2002," said Wallace.

Vicky McAdams lives on Oneida Avenue, less than a mile from the First Chemical facility. She recalls the explosion rocked her house that early Sunday morning. She's most concerned with the need for an early warning system to better notify neighbors.

"We did not know whether we should leave. We did not know anything about turning our air conditioning off. We did not know anything. We need a better system of information. We live awfully close," she told the board.

The future will mean better warnings. Jackson County is installing a reverse 9-1-1 call out system.

Civil Defense director, Todd Adams, says the system will be used to notify the public.

"It doesn't help for what happened three months ago. But if I could go back in time and get it ordered quicker, I would. But we do have it in place or will within about 45 days and we will use that in the future," he explained.

A final report from the chemical safety board is expected this summer.

First Chemical is under new ownership since the October accident. The plant now belongs to Dupont.

Dupont vice president, Jim Ellis, told residents the company is also conducing its own investigation. He says several changes have already been suggested to improve safety at the plant. One of those recommendations invovles relocating the central control room.

Ellis assured the crowd the column involved in the accident won't be used again until the investigation is complete.