Seven remain critical after explosion at rubber-recycling plant

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 17, 2002

ROUSE EMPLOYEE LEE GREER waits on the next ambulance after suffering burns on both of his arms in the Rouse fire Thursday evening. Greer, one of 12 employees injured in the explosion and fire, was listed in stable condition at River Region Medical Center this morning.(The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[05/17/02]A Vicksburg man was killed and 11 other people were burned Thursday evening when a rubber-recycling plant in the south part of the city exploded in flames.

This morning, seven of the 11 were in critical condition at Mississippi Firefighters Memorial Burn Center in Greenville, three were at River Region Medical Center in Vicksburg and one was treated and released.

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The plant, Rouse Polymerics International Inc., on U.S. 61 South, exploded about 6 p.m.

Clyde “Teddy” Smith, 40, died at 3:30 this morning at University Medical Center, Warren County Coroner John Thomason said. Smith had been flown by helicopter to Jackson from River Region, hospital spokesman Diane Gawronski said.

The seven in Greenville were identified as Tywayne Croskey, Roy Deaton and George Stewart, all of whom were airlifted from River Region, and John Davenport, Walter Doss Jr., Alfred Harrison and Antonio Hammlin, who were taken by ambulance. Hammlin and Stewart were taken to Greenville from UMC.

The three at River Region are, Lee Greer, 49; Patrick Rader, 29; and Eli Williams, 35. All were in the Critical Care Unit, Gawronski said. Rader was in surgery, and Greer and Williams were in stable condition, she said.

Andre Watts, 32, was treated and released from River Region Thursday night, Gawronski said.

“We had burned people everywhere,” Wesley Whitaker, one of the first Vicksburg firefighters to arrive, said after the blaze had been burning for about an hour. “It was bad.”

“The whole front end was involved,” Fire Chief Keith Rogers said.

About 20 people were working in the quarter-mile-long building when the explosion occurred. The blast was on the west side of the building, the farthest part from the busy highway, and black smoke could be seen billowing across the city and county.

“By about 10 or 10:30 I felt like we had control of the fire,” Rogers said. “We had it pushed back to the warehouse,” where about 150,000 pounds of Rouse’s highly flammable, dustlike product was stored.

During the fight, fire flashes up to 50 feet wide sparked from spewing dust, made firefighters shift their focus around the plant, Rogers said. “We knew we’d be there all night,” he said.

Melvin Truitt, who was working at a bagging station on the 3:30 p.m.-to-midnight shift, said he was about to return from his lunch break outside when the building exploded.

“I was about halfway to the break room,” but still outside the building, he said. “I turned and had to run to keep the fire from catching me. I had a towel and old shirts in my car, and I used them to smother the fire (on co-workers’ clothes). We brought them over away from the plant until the emergency workers got here.”

Workers escaped through doors on at least two sides of the building, with several of them leaving through a door on the east side, some with clothes on fire and skin peeled from burns, witnesses said. Some burned workers dove into the only water they could find, a large puddle off the plant’s concrete driveway, while others were “sitting down screaming” on grass several yards away, witnesses said.

Neighbors and early-arriving Entergy workers carrying gel blankets designed to ease burn pain immediately wrapped victims and poured water on them.

By about 8:30 p.m., Rogers said he and at least 45 of the 65 city firefighters on the scene contained the blaze to the back quarter of the plant, where a worker said he believed the fire had started.

Rogers said this morning hot spots could continue to smolder throughout the day.

Rouse’s product is used in the manufacture of tires, plant operations manager Eugene Payne said.

“We have small fires periodically,” Payne said. “It’s the nature of the process. We have to get the rubber dry.”

Payne said the plant has sprinkler systems throughout the building.

The American Red Cross was providing refreshments to firefighters and rescue workers beginning before 9 p.m.

An Entergy official said the company cut electricity to Rouse Polymerics and its next-door neighbor, U.S. Rubber. Callaway said only Rouse was damaged by the fire.

It was “way too early to tell” what would become of the plant after the fire, Payne said.