PORT WENTWORTH, GA (WTOC) - While progress on the Imperial Sugar refinery continues, another rebuilding process is taking place with its employees.
Many refinery employees are returning to their jobs, the ones they had before the devastating explosions and fires that killed 14 of their coworkers.
Vernon Brown has worked as a process operator at the plant for years. He's finally returned to his original job almost 18 months after the explosion.
"It felt like going back to the normal way of operating," he said. "It was exciting, just to hear everything start up running again."
Since the blast, many of the employees have been doing non-traditional jobs. Some helped with the demolition of the damaged buildings, others cleaned up debris and some like Brown, even went back to school.
"Robotics, basic use of the tools, little math, little science," he told WTOC.
Plant manager Thomas Rathke said more than 100 employees are back to their normal duties. "The boiler house, the utilities, the maintenance crews, electrical and mechanical," he explained.
Rathke believes it's just another step forward for Imperial Sugar. On site, the silos are almost rebuilt as is the packaging plant.
The refinery fired up two weeks ago. "We have restarted the boilers, we have restarted production," he said. "It was very exciting to do our first sugar strike. Seeing the smiles on people's faces,and seeing the first white sugar."
The plant is now operating at 40 percent. Imperial Sugar hopes to be fully operational by fall. But they'll never be at 100 percent. That's because not everyone will be returning to the plant when it fully reopens.
Fourteen of their comrades will still live on at the refinery, now watching over the grounds. "If I could bring them back I would," Brown said sadly. "But there's nothing I can do. To see the sugar refinery putting things back together is exciting. That blocks out a lot of the disaster that happened, and makes you grateful for what you have."
And it gives Brown and his coworkers another reason to move on, stronger than before.
Close to 200 more employees will return to their original positions once Imperial Sugar is fully up and running. The plant may even be hiring for new positions.