PORT WENTWORTH, GA (WTOC) - Almost ten months have passed since the explosions and fire at the Imperial Sugar refinery. Fourteen people lost their lives in the disaster. Many others were injured and everyone wondered if the Port Wentworth company could and would, rebuild.
Today, Imperial Sugar reached an important milestone in its efforts. While the company took time to remember those it lost, Imperial Sugar workers were also looking ahead.
They said they've reached the halfway mark in their rebuilding efforts. It is all the more remarkable when many other companies are downsizing and laying off workers and Imperial Sugar is still paying employees and growing.
With each shovel that broke the ground and every section of concrete poured, it was easy to feel the excitement at the Imperial Sugar refinery. Robert DeLoach was just one of many workers who was happy to be there.
"I've been out here since February 7 and to see where we've come today, versus the night of the explosion, it's just overwhelming," he said.
DeLoach worked at the old packaging plant, the area of the refinery that was destroyed that night. Today, he was helping rebuild his workplace.
"They're giving us a second chance," he said. "We get an opportunity to come back to work, support our families and do something we enjoy every day, coming to work and making sugar."
The groundbreaking wasn't limited to only a select few company officials. Imperial Sugar allowed any employee who wanted to pick up a shovel to take part. It was a way to let them know they're not only an important part of the company's past, but also a very critical part of its future.
"They've given us an opportunity to show that we're a team, coming back," explained DeLoach.
That opportunity was not lost on workers grateful for their jobs at a time when many others around the country have lost theirs.
"Since the day of the explosion, we had a job and still received a paycheck and they didn't put us through a strain," said Imperial Sugar employee Demond Reddick.
Many employees lost family and friends in the explosion or were injured. Reddick had another tragedy outside of work. His mother died a short time after the explosion.
"I've been going through a lot of tests and trials, but one thing I didn't have to worry about was having a job or an income," he said. "I was able to support my family and keep moving on."
CEO John Sheptor said it was important for the company to rebuild and support its employees. He expects Imperial Sugar to be fully back in operation by September, meeting the strong market demand for sugar.
"We provide 8 percent of the United States's sugar out of this factory. Without us operating every consumer in the country pays a higher price," he said. "The next ten months are going to be very exciting for this plant."
"I'm just going to be a part of wherever I fit in," explained Reddick. "I'm going to fit in to help them perform at top level."