First responders look back on Imperial Sugar blast - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

First responders look back on Imperial Sugar blast

February 7, 2008 February 7, 2008
February 7, 2008 February 7, 2008

By Michelle Paynter - bio | email

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - It's been almost a year since tragedy struck Port Wentworth. The explosion at Imperial Sugar on February 7, 2008 devastated this community and brought people closer to together.

Hundreds of first responders, firefighters, police officers and paramedics, answered the call for help the night of the explosion. They came from as far away as Statesboro, Glynn County and South Carolina. They all came running, without being asked or told, offering what ever help they could to fight the fire and comfort the families.

The explosion claimed 14 lives and forever changed many of the emergency responders who were first on the scene.

Savannah-Chatham police lieutenant Don Lee was on duty when the explosion happened. He remembers that night like it was yesterday.

"Chaos, chaos, the worst mass casualty event I've seen since Vietnam," said Lee. "There were a lot of very badly hurt people, a lot of equipment coming in, volunteers from everywhere."

Lt. Lee drove right up to plant. He watched his officers drag fire hoses, direct traffic and drive burn victims to the hospital.

"It's unprecedented, we respond to emergencies for a living, it's what we do, it's why they call us emergency responders," said Lee. "But when you see them putting eight people in the back of one ambulance and begging a police officer to drive the ambulance and you know you have something really unique."

"Everybody in the Coastal Empire wanted to do something, everybody," said Port Wentworth Fire chief Greg Long.

It was Chief Long's job to put the fire out and coordinate the search and rescue. "You kind of go into an automatic mode, this needs to be done, this needs to be done," he said. 

Chief Long has lived in the small town for 20 years. He remembers specifically telling his guys he did not want to know the names of the people who may still be inside the burning plant.

"Because I knew some of them I would know," he said. "And it didn't need to interfere with what the mission was and the mission is find them, bring them home, every single one of them."

Many of the families of those victims were staying across the street at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic church.

Savannah-Chatham police detective Josh Hunt was with them. He spent 36 hours helping some families find their loved ones and holding the hands of others who did not make it out.

Hunt said, "Doing a death notification in our line of work is difficult. Doing multiple death notifications to 100 people at once was easily the most difficult thing I've ever had to do. Not just in my law enforcement career but probably in my life."

For some, this tragedy still haunts them. "Sometimes I don't sleep very well," Long admitted. "I still have flashbacks, always questions on what could have been done better."

For others who answered the call that night, it makes them prouder than ever to be a first responder.

Lt. Lee said, "The fire itself, you look at that thing and you go oh that's not good. And then you look at the casualties and then you look at the people helping the casualties and say man those people are good and they were."

"I've never been in such awe," said Hunt. "The EMTs, firefighters and other police officers that showed up and acted so quickly, they saved lives. They removed people from the scene, there are officers who drove right up to the explosion. I don't know if a lot of people know about that, that's awe inspiring. It changed the way I look at what we do."

Many of the first responders say this experience changed them. Chief Long said he holds himself and his firefighters to a higher standard now.

Lt. Lee said he now appreciates mandatory training all first responders had to go through after 9/11 to learn to work together with other agencies.

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