City mourns 10 dead in sugar refinery explosion
By Russ Bynum - Associated Press
SAVANNAH --Ten wreathes of carnations, white as pure sugar, stood at the front of the stage as a woman stepped to each one and hung a hardhat in its center - a reminder of 10 Imperial Sugar workers killed in the fiery dust explosion at the company's nearby refinery.
More than 700 employees of the refinery in neighboring Port Wentworth, family members and friends of those killed in the Feb. 7 blast gathered for a memorial service Saturday at the Savannah Civic Center to remember as a group the men they had buried individually in the past week.
Many dabbed their eyes with tissues handed out by Red Cross volunteers as Cory Thomas, the grown son of fallen refinery worker Tony Thomas, read Bible verses offering words of comfort. Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson noted in his welcoming address that the tragedy was also personal for him. His cousin, 56 year-old Eric Barnes, died in the blast.
"You can ask anybody in Savannah or in the community around Port Wentworth, it definitely affects everybody," Richard Ussery, who has worked in the refinery for 17 years, said as he hugged and greeted friends leaving the memorial.
For Antonio Washington, who drives a forklift in the refinery warehouse, it was a chance to say goodbye to two friends he last saw the night of the explosion.
Washington left the memorial hobbling on a crutch, saying the force of the blast knocked him off his forklift and left him with a broken big toe. He counts himself among the lucky ones. Barnes, who worked near him, perished in a break room that collapsed. He said he'd also chatted with 56-year-old Earl Johnson, who also died, during a cigarette break shortly before the explosion.
"I'd like to remember everybody like they were," said Washington, who couldn't bring himself to attend either man's funeral. "I think about them everyday."
The memorial service came a day after the death toll climbed to 10 when an employee suffering from severe burns died Friday at an Augusta hospital. The worker's name had not been released by the hospital or Imperial Sugar.
Also killed were Truitt Byers, 54, of Savannah; Early Quarterman, 55, of Savannah; Byron Singleton, 26, of Ellabell; Shelathia Harvey, 31, of Hinesville; Mike Williams, 55, of Savannah; and Michael Kelly Fields, 40, of Rincon.
"They were men of faith, they were good sons, they were loving husbands and caring fathers," John Sheptor, president and CEO of Imperial Sugar, said during the service. "We will miss you and we will remember you for the rest of our lives."
Sheptor also praised the firefighters, paramedics and police who swarmed to the 90-year-old refinery to save the injured and battle the intense blaze that burned for a week after the explosion. He also thanked several unnamed heroes among the refinery's ranks of employees.
Two brothers working at the plant rushed back inside a burning building to save their uncle, Sheptor said, and two other employees scrambled to shut off a large boiler operating dangerously close to the flames and the firefighters working to extinguish it.
Shutting down the boiler potentially saved "hundreds of lives - all of our emergency response personal, the injured and many of our employees who were gathered just at the foot of that boiler," Sheptor said
Imperial Sugar declined to name those men, saying they wished to remain anonymous.
Investigators determined the explosion was caused by sugar dust collecting in a basement area beneath the refinery's three giant storage silos, though exactly what ignited the dust remains under investigation.
Thirteen workers who suffered severe burns in the explosion remain hospitalized in critical condition at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital in Augusta. Two others are in serious condition.