Firefighters douse blaze at rubber-recycling plant

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 20, 2002

Vicksburg Firefighter Tommy Stewart rests his head in his hands as Lt. Dale McDuff drinks a cup of water Friday morning after working the fire at Rouse Polymerics International Inc. Vicksburg Firefighters took 12-hour shifts battling the blaze.(The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[05/18/02]Nine workers who were inside the rubber-recycling plant that exploded in fire Thursday remained in intensive care Friday night as firefighters finished dousing the blaze.

One person was killed and 11 were injured when the plant, Rouse Polymerics International, Inc., U.S. 61 South, began to burn about 6 p.m. Thursday.

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“We’re wrapping it up, but we will maintain a fire watch to make sure nothing rekindles,” Vicksburg Fire Chief Keith Rogers said about 8 p.m. Friday, adding that firefighters had finished putting out a hot spot as recently as half an hour earlier.

Seven of the approximately 20 workers in the plant when it exploded were still listed in critical condition at the Mississippi Firefighters Memorial Burn Center in Greenville, center spokesman Robby Scucchi said. Two were in the Critical Care Unit (CCU) at River Region Medical Center, hospital spokesman Diane Gawronski said. A tenth remained admitted and in stable condition at River Region, Gawronski said.

Many of the patients in the burn center had second- and third-degree burns over significant portions of their bodies, Scucchi said.

Tywayne Croskey, 24, and Roy Deaton, 50, were the first two victims of the fire to arrive, by helicopter, at the Burn Center, about 9 p.m. Thursday, Scucchi said. John Davenport, 27; Alfred Harrison, 42; George Stewart, 33; Walter Doss Jr., 28; and Antonio Hammlin, age unavailable, followed, the last arriving about 5 a.m., Scucchi said. Some of those patients were diverted from University Medical Center, he said.

In the River Region CCU, Patrick Rader, 29, was listed as critically stable and recovering from surgery and Eli Williams, 35, was stable, Gawronski said. Lee Greer, 49, remained admitted to the hospital and in stable condition, Gawronski said.

Scucchi said the burn center commonly lists patients with severe burns in critical condition for the first 24 to 48 hours they are there.

Clyde “Teddy” Smith, 40, of Vicksburg, the plant’s purchasing manager, died Friday morning about 3:30 a.m. at University Medical Center.

Company president Michael Rouse said there were many heroic acts by employees who were injured.

“This was a very tragic loss,” Rouse said. “As we rebuild our community, we can only build on our experiences. The most important thing is that Ted Smith is a real hero.”

Rouse said Smith ran back to the building in an attempt to save the lives of those still in the plant.

“And we’ve got several other heroes. We can all pray that they will be back to being part of our company and community.”

Andre Watts, 32, was also injured, but was treated and released at River Region.

Rogers said many of the hot spots that flared up after the fire was under control were near the building’s roof and were difficult to reach. That’s why an aerial unit and another engine were being left at the plant, he said.

“The front did not help at all,” Rogers said of the rainstorm that moved through Vicksburg late Friday afternoon. “The wind actually stirred the material and made it flare up.”

Rouse Polymerics employs about 130 employees on three shifts in its 60,000-square-foot building, general manager Jerry Bell said. The plant crushes tire scraps into powder for use in manufacturing tires.

The cause of the fire was still under investigation by several state and federal agencies, Rogers said. Agencies represented at the scene for site security and investigation included the U.S. Coast Guard Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the state fire marshal and department of environmental quality.

Doss’s father, Walter Doss Sr., began working at the plant, which opened in Vicksburg about 1960, in 1972. He said he was relieved to see his son after he heard about the fire and was temporarily unable to get information about him by phone.

“He was in a lot of pain, and was doped up,” Doss Sr. said of his son before he was taken by ambulance to River Region, and then to Greenville. “I was helping keep water on his hands, trying to cool him down.”

Doss said that, while his son was severely burned on his hands, face, side, and back, he looked to be in better condition than many of the other victims. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “After I saw him, it relieved me. Some guys’ skin was just melting off.”

“I don’t know what we saved, if anything,” Rogers said of the building Friday morning.

“I felt Rouse Polymerics has been a very dynamic part of this community,” Rouse said. “I’ve been focusing on making sure that those in pain will hurt less in some way and in planning for the future. I’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.”