Rouse investigation could take months

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 22, 2002

05/21/02]Investigation into what caused the fire that left one man dead and 11 injured Thursday at a rubber-recycling plant in south Vicksburg may take months, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration official said.

The Rouse Polymerics International Inc., U.S. 61 South, production facility exploded about 6 p.m. Thursday. Walls were blown out and flames quickly swept the building, Vicksburg Fire Chief Keith Rogers said. Firefighters battled the fire through the night and continued to extinguish hot spots for about two days after it started.

This morning nine remained hospitalized, including eight in intensive care seven in the Mississippi Firefighters Memorial Burn Center in Greenville and one in the Critical Care Unit at River Region Medical Center.

C. Theodore “Teddy” Smith, 40, the plant’s purchasing manager, died early Friday after trying to help co-workers.

One of the Greenville patients, Walter Doss Jr., 28, of Vicksburg, was in fair condition this morning, down from good Monday, center spokesman Robby Scucchi said. The other six in Greenville remained in critical condition this morning, he said.

The Jackson area director of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Clyde Payne, said his agency is investigating the accident, as it normally does when three or more employees are hospitalized or one dies.

“It could take several months to finish our work onsite and offsite,” he said. “We’re looking for the cause of the event to prevent such an occurrence in the future, and to ensure that there were not any violations of employee-safety regulations associated with it.”

Investigators from the city fire department and state fire marshal’s office ruled the fire an accident, Rogers said. Normally the local investigation might stop there, but in this case, the investigation would continue, he said.

“We’re trying to determine how we can prevent this from happening in the future,” Rogers said. “The families are going to want to know what happened. We want to try to get with the workers to discuss what each person was doing at a particular time,” he said.

“We want to find out what (in the series of events) happened first,” the chief said.

Rogers and Payne said they would welcome cooperation between each others’ agencies in the investigation.

“We don’t want to stop until we have a much better idea of what happened,” Rogers said.

“There will be multiple agencies involved and we will be cooperating in the efforts,” Payne said. “OSHA cooperates with state and local and county entities in a lot of our work.”

Separately, the chief of emergency services of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, Eric Dear, said his agency responded the night of the fire and shortly began to monitor the air and water around the plant.

“We didn’t really pick up anything in the air,” he said. “There was some cleanup for the runoff water” from the firefight.

Dear said his organization’s immediate goal is to ensure that the company did its part to minimize environmental damage in its handling of the emergency, which he said it did.

An undetermined amount of rubber made its way to the nearby Mississippi River, Dear said. What did not make it that far, though, was “fairly easy to contain, control and remove,” he said.