|A toxic cloud of white smoke can be seen pouring from the plant following an explosion that sent 33 people to the hospital. (Photos by Wade Bell)|
Explosion at JET plant sends 33 to hospital
2,400 gallons of sulfuric acid accidentally mixed with 1,400 gallons of ferric chloride
March 26, 2008
Just five months after Crawford County emergency officials held an exercise on handling a large hazardous materials incident, they had to deal with the real thing Thursday afternoon following an explosion at the 400-employee Jasper Engines and Transmission plant near Carefree that sent 33 people to the hospital.
The incident occurred at about 2:16 p.m. after 2,400 gallons of sulfuric acid and 1,400 gallons of ferric chloride were accidentally mixed together in a tank in the northwest corner of the building. The resulting explosion extensively damaged that corner of the building, with cracks and bulges able to be seen from S.R. 66. A toxic cloud was also visible when firefighters arrived on the scene.
|Ken Smith of Jasper Engines and Transmissions shows floor plans to members of the Louisville Fire Department's hazardous materials team just before the team goes inside the plant to check the toxicity levels left over from the explosion.|
"We heard over the intercom system to evacuate, so we gathered up all the people," JET safety manager Tim Stephenson said. "On our side of the transmission department there are probably 100 to 125 people. We started going out our evacuation route on the north side of the building and we saw all the white smoke coming out of the ground, so we quickly told everybody to come out this (south) side of the building."
Stephenson said they didn't hear the explosion and didn't know what had happened.
"We didn't know know what was going on," he said. "We thought it was a drill at first. We have a lot of operation band-aid drills here. Everybody walked out calmly."
It wasn't long, however, until Stephenson and the others realized something serious had happened.
"Once we got everybody outside the building, we could smell it on the south side of the building," Stephenson said. "People started coughing and gagging. I told everybody to head toward the interstate. That was the best way. Eventually, we all started heading towards the road."
Ferric chloride is a corrosive and gives off a slightly acrid odor. It has "severe" ratings in both human health and contact. Sulfuric acid is highly corrosive and a known carcinogen. It can severely irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs and build up fluids in the lungs at higher levels. It is also highly reactive with other chemicals. When mixed with ferric chloride, it creates hydrogen chloride. Hydrogen is listed by the Department of Transportation as a poison gas and corrosive. It can be irritating and corrosive to the eyes, skin and mucous membranes.
|Above right, JET employees make their way south on S.R. 66 toward Carefree, where they found other ways home, after having to leave their vehicles at the JET facility.|
"It was pretty potent," Stephenson said. "People were gasping for air just on this (south) side of the building. When we got out here, we knew it was the real thing. I'm with the fire department (at Milltown) and all of my turnout gear is on the north side of the parking lot, and I couldn't get to it. My fire department radio was there, so I couldn't communicate with anybody. I carry the (plant) radio throughout the plant, so I got on channel eight, which is maintenance, our emergency channel, and everybody made pretty good timing getting out."
An incident command center was established at the industrial park entrance on S.R. 66. Crawford County Emergency Management Agency Director Kent Barrow was at Milltown working the flooding issues there when he heard the call of the explosion.
"On my way over here, I didn't know what we were going to deal with and what we were going to do," he said. "I just knew that I had the contacts to make and get those folks here to handle the situation.
"When I was coming out of Milltown, I had to look this way to see if I could see anything. I was thinking, if we had a large explosion, we might be able to see something, and I didn't and I felt good about that. I was trying to monitor radio traffic and be in contact with my resources. I wasn't hearing a whole lot because I was concentrating on what I needed to do."
In a matter of minutes, Barrow had emergency agencies from five counties on their way to help with the situation. The agencies that responded to the scene included the English, Marengo and Leavenworth volunteer fire departments; Crawford, Harrison, Floyd and Louisville EMAs; Indiana Department of Homeland Security; Indiana Fire Marshall's Office; EMS services from Perry, Dubois, Crawford and Harrison counties; Salvation Army; Indiana Department of Transportation; Indiana State Police and Crawford County Sheriff's Department. The Crawford County Community School Corp. provided buses to transport noncontaminated employees to other transportation away from the scene. The Louisville Metro Hazardous Materials Team also responded because of the seriousness of the situation.
"We got a grip on it pretty fast," Barrow said. "I think everyone worked well together. We established incident command right away. That has been a big dilemma as far as I've seen ongoing, but I think a lot of people will take something from this and as a county our response and improvement to response to something of this magnitude has got a lot better. I don't take any of the credit for that. I think these guys knew the significance of this place and they were aware of what they could possible be dealing with."
|English volunteer firefighters use a portable decontamination station to clean off JET employees following the explosion.|
S.R. 66 from Magnolia Road to Interstate 64 and school traffic to and from nearby Leavenworth Elementary School was rerouted. The English VFD set up a portable decontamination station to handle those who had been affected by the chemicals.
Crawford EMS Director Debbie Wiseman said 26 employees were transported by ambulance to Harrison County Hospital, with most being treated for respiratory ailments as none of the injuries were life-threatening. There were also seven walk-in patients to the hospital who were also treated. Only one person was kept overnight, but was released the next day.
"Jasper Engines got the people out of there," Barrow said. "I feel very fortunate none of the responders were injured, none of the employees were seriously injured. We came away with no fatalities, and I think we fared well."
The Louisville response team sent four firemen in fully encapsulated chemical suits to check the toxicity around the building later in the afternoon. By about 8:30 p.m., it was determined that the toxicity levels were down enough to move closer to the building. S.R. 66 was reopened at 9:30 p.m. Barrow said Midwest Specialties was to handle any cleanup and decontamination issues in the building.
"There's some vehicles outside that are going to have to be decontaminated that were close to the building," Barrow said. "Jasper Engines is going to have to look at the structural damage and get that repaired."
Barrow said he didn't know how the investigation into the accident would proceed.
"We know what caused the explosion," he said. "We know it was completely an accident that caused it. I don't know whether there will be a full state investigation. I'm sure there will be things come down the line."
Barrow said the tabletop exercise months earlier played a big part in how well the issues in this incident were handled. Some of the conditions in the exercise were the same as the Jasper incident.
"I'm really glad, for my part, that we did the tabletop exercise, and I felt good when I got here," he said. "Jasper Engines is an asset to this county, and all the responders did an excellent job when they got here. No one rushed in and risked their lives. I think that there's been enough talk that we've done those things and those decisions were made."
"An environment cleanup crew was here pretty quick," Barrow said. "Multiple state agencies, the fire marshall's office, emergency management people from the state. I think everything just clicked. … All the heads that had something involved, as far as incident command went, they all got together just like it's supposed to be, and I just feel really good about it."
Jasper Engines was back in full operation Monday morning.
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