Volatile dust was blamed Friday in an explosion that leveled a sugar refinery, and crews pulled four bodies from tunnels beneath the mangled mass of metal and beams.
At least four people known to be inside when the explosion occurred were missing. Savannah Police Sgt. Mike Wilson said no attempts would be made to search for the dead until today, when heavy equipment will be brought in to remove debris.
Search efforts were slowed by the instability of what was left of the Imperial Sugar Co. refinery, which was gutted by flames and racked by the blast. Anxious families of the night-shift workers gathered at the Catholic parish hall across the street and wept as officials relayed grim news from the plant.
Investigators were unable to determine what sparked the explosion as firefighters battled flames inside the vast refinery -- a network of warehouses, silos and buildings eight stories tall connected by corridors of sheet metal.
Imperial President John C. Sheptor said sugar dust in a silo where refined sugar was stored before being packaged probably ignited like gunpowder. Sugar dust can become combustible if it's too dry and builds up a static electric charge.
The result was as devastating as a bomb. Floors inside the plant collapsed, flames spread throughout the refinery, girders buckled into twisted heaps and shredded sheet metal littered the wreckage.
"There was fire all over the building," said Nakishya Hill, a machine operator who escaped from the third floor of the refinery uninjured but for blisters on her elbow. "All I know is, I heard a loud boom and everything came down. All I could do when I got down was take off running."
More than 30 employees were taken to hospitals as ambulances lined up a dozen at a time outside the refinery's sole entrance road.
Several workers were airlifted to a burn center in Augusta, 130 miles away. Many were in critical condition, including some who were placed on ventilators, said Dr. William N. Wessinger, the medical director at Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah.
Beth Frits, a spokeswoman for the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital in Augusta, said 16 victims transferred from Memorial were in critical condition and three were in serious condition.
By Friday afternoon, the first deaths were confirmed as firefighters pulled four bodies from tunnels beneath the refinery. They were not immediately identified.
Many Imperial employees gathered at the city's gymnasium for a company meeting Friday. Most declined to speak to reporters, saying company executives had asked them not to. The plant had 450 employees, Sheptor said.
"Everybody is upset about everybody. People haven't made it out of there yet," said Dana Claxton, 28, who has worked at the plant for four years. "There's a million jobs out here, but there's not a million friends."
The refinery -- known as the Dixie Crystals plant -- was one of the largest employers in this town of 5,000 just northwest of Savannah and a core part of its economy for 90 years. The Port Wentworth refinery turned raw cane sugar into crystal sugar sold in supermarkets.