Criminal Investigation Ends At Refinery

Chief Long speaks about maintaining a fire watch.
Chief Long speaks about maintaining a fire watch.

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - There's a major shift in the work at the sugar refinery.

After more than a week of fighting fires and digging through the debris, investigators are looking into the cause of the explosion and inferno. The investigation team consisting of Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police and Fire investigators, the State Fire Marshal's Office, Georgia Bureau of Investigations and the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms national response teams are speaking out about the explosion that claimed nine lives and critically injured 14 others.

Even after seeing the destruction and learning that so many of our friends and loved ones are gone, it still seems hard to believe. But in the midst of all the sorrow, there is some good news.

The Georgia Search and Rescue Team has recovered the body of the last missing employee.

"We were able to bring all of the employees back to their families," explained Port Wentworth Fire Chief Greg Long, the Incident Commander.

He has been identified as 50-year-old Tony Thomas of Garden City. Thomas worked at the refinery for 31 years and leaves behind a wife and two adult children.

First responders remain on the scene wrapping up their investigation. ATF special agent in charge of the national response team, Phillip Durham said, "There was nothing criminal about this tragedy. It was an industrial accident."

"As you can imagine with the sugar and dust throughout the building as the initial explosion occurred, it shook loose other dust in the building which again added fuel to the fire which made the fire progress throughout the building," said Durham.

Durham and the team have picked apart this scene and traced the fire and explosion back to where it started.

"We worked from third, second and first floor. We were able to trace the fire back to the basement below silos number one and two. There was obviously sugar dust created when it was being processed. The building does have mitigation systems for the dust. We can't say why the dust accumulated under silos one and two, but there was a sugar dust there as well as mixing with the oxygen and then an ignition source."

Investigators said they have not yet been able to pinpoint what started the fire.

The criminal investigation has concluded and will now be turned over to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Chemical Safety Board who will handle the administrative and civil part of the investigation.

Chief Long said they'll maintain a fire watch over the weekend. On Monday, they hope to return the plant to the company.

Reported by: Dawn Baker, dbaker@wtoc.com