A deafening explosion roared through a pharmaceutical supply plant Wednesday in Kinston, N.C., killing at least three workers and injuring 37 in fire and choking smoke that hindered firefighters searching for victims.
Three bodies were found amid the blast debris, according to Chief Deral Raynor of the North Lenoir Fire Department, the scene commander. He said Wednesday night that he believed that everyone in the plant at the time of the explosion had been accounted for, but other officials cautioned that it was too early to say for sure.
Earlier in the day Lenoir County government and hospital officials cited unconfirmed reports that as many as eight West Pharmaceutical Services workers might have been killed in the blast, which sent shafts of flame soaring over treetops.
"You ever see a war zone? That's what it looked like," said Larry Chapman, director of health and safety for the Lenoir County Red Cross. "Flames were shooting up 50 feet over the rooftop -- or at least where the rooftop used to be."
The first emergency crews on the scene repeatedly rescued plant workers who were dangling from steel beams in the rear section of the building.
By nightfall, even as flames still licked at the edges of the collapsed factory, firefighters using sensor devices began poking through the smoldering ruins, searching for victims.
"We have many individuals that were burned and have been moved to many different hospitals in North Carolina," said Mayor Johnnie Mosley. Helicopters airlifted the critically injured to Raleigh and Chapel Hill, both more than 100 miles to the northwest.
The shock wave from the blast at 1:30 p.m. blew out the factory's doors and roof. Injured workers staggered out from billowing columns of smoke, coughing and bleeding. Many were cut by flying glass.
"They told us they don't have much hope for our son," said Mary Edwards. Her stepson, James, 45, was transferred by helicopter to Chapel Hill. "He's terribly burned."
Fire investigators said it was too soon to speculate about the blast's origin. But Edwards said she was told by rescue officials that the explosion's epicenter was in the compound-mixing area, where her stepson and other workers poured a chemical rubber compound used in the manufacture of syringes and intravenous filaments.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the plant was last inspected in October, when it was cited for several safety violations and fined about $10,000. The fine was reduced to $9,075 in a settlement agreement signed Jan. 8.
"We're satisfied with the company's response to the inspection we did this fall," state Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry said.
Among other things, the plant was cited for problems with its electrical-systems design, wiring and use; portable fire extinguishers and hazardous-waste operations.
Several workers who escaped the fireball and palls of smoke said they thought the factory was under attack by terrorists. One survivor, Sampson Heath, was on the opposite side of the plant from where the explosion occurred. Sampson said the force of the blast upended him. He rose to see tiles ripped from the ceiling. Trapped co-workers begged for help.
"Your life did flash before your eyes," Heath said.
Emergency officials urged people living within a mile of the plant to evacuate because of the smoke, which vented fumes from burning plastic. Lee Edwards, who lives a tenth of a mile from the plant, said the blast sent debris from two 800-foot-tall water towers flying through the air.
"All I can see is just the black smoke, just billowing up in the air. I mean, the whole sky is black," he said. "That whole building is gone."
Hugh Pollock, headmaster of nearby Arendell Parrott Academy, said windows in his building burst from their frames and one child was cut on the head by broken glass. The private school was evacuated.
Even a mile away at Kinston High School, where Joseph Tyson is an ROTC instructor, the ground shook. When he rushed outside, "I saw smoke way above the tree line," said Tyson, who is also a member of the City Council. "I thought it was a plane crash" at neighboring Kinston Regional Airport.
Red Cross officials greeted about 100 relatives who descended on a Baptist church near the explosion site, desperate to find out about the welfare of missing relatives. It took four hours before Mary Edwards knew her stepson's life was in danger. "We kept asking and asking but nobody knew anything," she said.
Mosley said 134 people were in the plant at the time of the explosion. West Pharmaceutical is the second-largest employer in a town of 25,000 that has steadily lost textile factories in recent years.
"We are obviously stunned by the news," said Don Morel, West Pharmaceutical's chief executive officer.
"Our overriding concern lies with the well-being and safety of our employees, their loved ones and the surrounding community," Morel said.
Morel said a crisis team was being sent to the scene from the company's headquarters in Lionville, Pa.
Times researcher John Beckham, in Chicago, and Associated Press contributed to this report.