First responders remember sugar refinery explosion - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

First responders remember sugar refinery blast

Tommy Branch Tommy Branch

A ball of flames filled the night sky that cold February night. Homeowners said the blast was so loud and powerful the ground shook underneath their homes. Then came the frantic phone calls to 911.

"There's just been an explosion at Imperial Sugar. We need help now," one caller screamed to the operators.

Tommy Branch was one of the first EMT's on the scene.

"I was in shock," he said. "We never had anything like that."

Some of the images that night still haunt him today.

"I try to put a lot of it out of my mind if I can," he said.

The Chemical Safety Board later determined sugar dust that had accumulated for years somehow sparked. That ignited the tremendous explosion that tore through the Imperial Sugar's silos and packaging warehouse. 14 people died, dozens more were badly burned.

The community held memorials and vigils to remember those who lost their lives. Branch decided to take action.

He's also the president of the Red Knight Motorcycle Club. The members are all first responders, mainly fire fighters and EMT's. The group decided to hold an Imperial Sugar Poker Run just one month after the explosion. They've held the same ride every year near the anniversary.

"We were overwhelmed," said Branch. "We had almost 600 bikers turn out that first day. We were in awe. We didn't expect what we got."

All the money helps victims at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta. That's where most of the badly burned refinery patients were taken for treatment.

"Our first year we made close to $15,000. That was just in one day," said Branch.

While it doesn't change what happened that fateful February night, Branch believes the poker run is helping the community heal one day at a time.

The Red Knights 5th annual Sugar Run will take place this Saturday. Registration begins at 10 a.m. at the Savannah Harley Davidson near Hwy. 204 and I-95. The cost is $15, which includes food and a 5th anniversary pin. Bikes will take off at 11 a.m. Additional donations are welcome. 

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