APNewsBreak: Fire official says no additional dead believed buried in rubble of Conn. plant

By John Christoffersen, AP
Monday, February 8, 2010

Official: Toll should stand at 5 in plant blast

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. — Search-and-rescue crews declared a section of an exploded power plant too unstable to comb through Monday, a task that lost urgency when officials said everyone assigned to work at the plant the day of the blast had been accounted for and the death toll should stand at five.

Mayor Sebastian Guiliano sounded a note of caution Monday afternoon, however, saying rescue crews had been unable to get to all areas of the plant and he could not say for certain that no more victims would be found.

Deputy Fire Marshal Al Santostefano told The Associated Press that he didn’t know when rescue crews would be able to search the small section of the plant that was unstable but said the fact that everyone had been accounted for was good news.

“We needed something to lift spirits around here, and that definitely did it,” he said.

The blast in Middletown, about 20 miles south of Hartford, injured more than two dozen in addition to the five dead. It happened as workers were clearing gas lines of air, but the exact cause remained under investigation.

Welders and other workers were at the site Monday, preparing to make it safer for emergency workers, said Ed Reilly, president of the Greater Hartford-New Britain Building Trades Council. Piles of rubble stood 10 feet high in some places, and mounds of lay everywhere, Santostefano said.

Investigators from the town fire marshal’s office returned to the scene Monday to try to begin determining the cause. Investigators from Occupational Safety and Health Administration were also at the site, which was closed to reporters.

“I lost a couple of good friends up there,” Michael Rosario, a representative of the local Plumbers and Pipefitters union, said as he broke down crying Monday.

“We hug our families, kiss our children. … We go to work and we want to come home at the end of the day, safe,” he said. “That didn’t happen for a few people yesterday.”

The blast left huge pieces of metal that once encased the plant peeling off its sides. A large swath of the structure was blackened and surrounded by debris, but the building, its roof and its two smokestacks were still standing at the site, which is near Wesleyan University on a wooded and hilly 137-acre parcel of land overlooking the Connecticut River.

A team sent by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, a federal agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents, arrived at the site Monday but was turned away by local police, said Daniel Horowitz, the agency’s spokesman.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., said he was told a judge signed a jurisdictional warrant giving the police and local fire department the right to control the property, and that members of the congressional delegation and the governor’s office were working together to “navigate the jurisdictional lines” defining who can be at the site.

“We want to make sure all critical agencies get to do their job,” said Courtney, who visited the site on Monday.

The nearly completed 620-megawatt plant is being built to produce energy primarily using natural gas, which accounts for about a fifth of the nation’s electricity. Workers for the construction company, O&G Industries Inc., a Torringon-based general contractor for the Kleen Energy project, were purging a gas line, clearing it of air, when the explosion occurred around 11:15 a.m. Sunday, Santostefano said.

The explosion occurred just outside the building, between two of the generators, Giuliano said.

Santostefano said workers were at the site Sunday because they were trying to get the plant open on time — the opening was slated for sometime in the middle of 2010 — but added: “It wasn’t like they were working in a frenzy.”

Melissa Brady, a spokeswoman for Middlesex Hospital, said it treated 26 patients, 21 of whom were released Sunday. Three were admitted to Middlesex and two with severe injuries were transferred, one to Yale-New Haven Hospital and one to Hartford Hospital. She said most had injuries characteristic of being thrown or in an explosion, such as broken bones and bruises.

They were all expected to survive, she said, and most of the injuries were to extremities.

Kleen Energy Systems LLC began construction on the plant in February 2008. It had signed a deal with Connecticut Light and Power for the electricity produced by the plant, and would be one of the biggest built in New England in the last few years.

The company is run by former City Councilman William Corvo. Messages left at Corvo’s home were not returned. Calls to Gordon Holk, general manager of Power Plant Management Services, which has a contract to manage the plant, also weren’t returned.

OSHA records show there was a planned inspection on July 28, 2009, for work being performed by O&G Industries. There was one violation, listed as “other,” relating to recordkeeping and reporting. John Chavez, an OSHA spokesman, says records show O&G settled the matter informally by paying the $1,000 fine.

“Relatively speaking, they do appear to have a pretty clean record,” Chavez said.

Energy Investors Funds, a private equity fund that indirectly owns a majority share in the power plant, said it was cooperating with authorities.

Safety board investigators have done extensive work on the issue of gas line purging since an explosion last year at a Slim Jim factory in North Carolina killed four people. They’ve identified other explosions caused by workers who were unsafely venting gas lines inside buildings.

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