Investigation begins into causes of deadly Florida explosion

Published 20 December 2007

Jacksonville, Florida massive explosion and fire at the T2 Laboratories facility kill 4 and injure 14; rescue teams describe scene as “hellish inferno”

Investigators from four federal agencies joined Jacksonville, Florida homicide detectives and the state fire marshal at the scene of Wednesday’s massive explosion and fire that took four lives and sent fourteen others to area hospitals. Teams from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, National Safety and Health Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms arrived at what was left of the T2 Laboratories facility that was destroyed in what a fire spokesman called a “hellish inferno.” This morning, Jacksonville Fire-Rescue officials removed the last two bodies from the site and identified all four people killed. Businesses in the immediate area remained closed while safety inspectors assess the structural integrity of the buildings. One neighboring facility had a wall blown out and the roof collapsed. “It has the appearance of somewhat of an earthquake, where the buildings have been shaking, literally,” Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office spokesman Ken Jefferson said. An estimated 1,000 people who work in the area were kept out so far today, but a few of the business owners were allowed to inspect their property. “We’re about 300 yards from where the explosion was and it’s heavily damaged,” said Brian Almony. “A lot of glass broken out and all the walls inside buckled.” JEA crews were restoring power in the area and a CSX rail crew was making repairs to damaged tracks behind the explosion site.

The 1:30 p.m. explosion at the chemical manufacturing plant on Faye Road — about one block from the coal-fired electric plant on Heckscher Drive — was felt by people several miles away and the column of black smoke could be seen from as far as 70 miles away in coastal Georgia. “There was like this tremendous boom like I’ve never heard in my life,” said Shannon Story, who works nearby. “Everything shook in the building, the power went out, light bulbs fell from ceiling. We all evacuated as fast as we could.” Witnesses described a flash, an explosion and a mushroom cloud above the plant that manufactures chemical solvents and fuel additives. When the first firefighters arrived, steel and debris were flying through the air. “The incident is so violent and the fire is still so volatile … we have not been able to ascertain directly yet what materials are present,” Jacksonville Fire-Rescue spokesman Tom Francis said in announcing that a one-half mile radius was evacuated. More than a dozen victims were transported to four area hospitals, where they were decontaminated upon arrival. Of the eleven patients taken to Shands-Jacksonville Medical Center, one was in critical condition, three fair, seven good and one had been released. Doctors said most of the injuries were from broken bones and chemical exposure.

By late afternoon yesterday, with the fire under control and the air quality declared safe, the evacuations were lifted and officials began assessing the damage. “Nothing there resembles a building,” Mayor John Peyton said. “It’s amazing when you see the scene that there wasn’t more loss of life.” Neighboring businesses were also damaged, one losing a wall and the ceiling collapsing. Shrapnel from the explosion fell at the JEA plant a quarter-mile away. Byron Evetts, an engineer working at the JEA plant who is also a trained rescuer, rushed to the scene to try and help. “There were large, structural beams lying hundreds of yards from the scene. It looked like a war zone,” Evetts said. Faye Road between Alta Drive and New Berlin Road remained closed to all but official traffic Thursday morning. This story will be updated as more information becomes available, with team coverage on the local station beginning at 5 p.m.