Sheptor: "It's been a moment of testing for all of our lives"

Imperial Sugar CEO John Sheptor
Imperial Sugar CEO John Sheptor
Refinery employee Jeffery Hilliard
Refinery employee Jeffery Hilliard

PORT WENTWORTH, GA (WTOC) - Today marks the one year anniversary of the Imperial Sugar explosion in Port Wentworth.

That explosion killed 14 people and injured dozens more. Today, Imperial Sugar employees, victims, their families, first responders and the community gathered at Legacy Park to remember those who died one year ago.

"It's been a moment of testing for all of our lives," said Imperial Sugar CEO John Sheptor. "I remember the faces and lives of the families who lost a loved one."

Port Wentworth mayor Glenn Jones took the podium. He thanked those who were first on the scene on the night of February 7, 2008. He thanked the doctors and nurses at Memorial University Medical Center and the burn center in Augusta.

He thanked the grief counselors and the volunteers with the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the United Way.

And he thanked the entire community who gave their time, their money and their blood to help the victims and the families of the explosion.

Also taking the podium at today's memorial service were Imperial Sugar employees from both the Port Wentworth plant as well as the plant in Gramercy, Louisiana and Sugarland, Texas.

"I returned home to the Savannah sugar refinery on a Friday morning, February 8, 2008," described plant manager in Gramercy Oscar Brannen. "Shock and disbelief, destruction and loss on a scale that I could not believe."

Brannen then went on to talk about the future. "As I stand here today, I see a business being built back," he said.

Once again, Sheptor took the podium and spoke of that night and the road to recovery since.

"Four of us were walking through the refinery when we heard the first explosion. My colleagues got up from the floor and ran in the direction of that noise," described Sheptor about the night of the blast. "Those minutes were like hours as we waited for news on whether we should leave or stay."

He continued, "Two men died in the conference room that I was walking towards to speak to."

Sheptor then spoke about the days, weeks and months since the explosion, saying he saw Imperial associates turn into heroes.

"Many of us have traveled the long road of healing from that time," he said. "Hundreds have approached me this past year to say that they are praying for me, for you and this company."

Sheptor went on to say he's become inspired by the Imperial Sugar family and the communities of Port Wentworth and the surrounding areas.

Like Mayor Jones, Sheptor thanked the first responders and the hospitals who helped save so many lives that night.

"They served, they supported, they helped," said Sheptor of the community volunteers. "We are indebted to this community."

Sheptor then spoke about the future of a company that has been around since the 1800s. "With your courage and community support, we will forge ahead," said Sheptor.

He then read the names of the 14 who died from the blast, saying, "We miss you."

The last person to speak was refinery employee Jeffery Hilliard. "This is the beginning of a new generation for the Savannah sugar refinery," he said. "You must continue to press forward. Everything's in place, it's up to you. We'll never forget what happened but it's up to you to press forward."

Many others took the stage to sing songs, pray and offer words of inspiration to the victims, their families and the entire community.

At the end of the service, 14 doves were released in honor to those victims who died.