Charleston plant explosion claimed 9 lives 29 years ago

Charleston plant explosion claimed 9 lives 29 years ago
The explosion at the Albright & Wilson plant in Charleston happened shortly before noon on June 17, 1991. (Source: Live 5/File)

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - As families of the Emanuel 9 mark five years since their loved ones' deaths in a church shooting Wednesday, families of nine plant workers are remembering the 29th anniversary of the tragedy that changed their lives as well.

The explosion at the Albright & Wilson Americas Inc. plant happened on the morning of June 17, 1991.

EMS tended to the injured immediately after the explosion. (Source: Live 5)
EMS tended to the injured immediately after the explosion. (Source: Live 5)

It occurred shortly before noon as workers began mixing chemicals to make a flame retardant, Terry Martin, the company’s employee relations manager, said.

Plant officials would later conclude an unexpected reaction led to the explosion.

Sheets of corrugated aluminum siding that had covered the building, one of nine buildings on the site, were scattered across the grounds of the plant, according to then-Charleston County Coroner Ray Shokes.

"The building just looked like it was blown apart," Shokes said.

The unit where the blast occurred had been shut down the week before the explosion for routine maintenance and was restarted the day before the explosion. Jennings said at the time he did not think the explosion was related to the shutdown.

Initial reports stated six people died and 33 were injured.

The June 17, 1991, fire at the Albright & Wilson plant was believed to have been caused by an unexpected reaction as employees mixed chemicals.
The June 17, 1991, fire at the Albright & Wilson plant was believed to have been caused by an unexpected reaction as employees mixed chemicals. (Source: Live 5/File)

Manager Grey Jennings said only one of the six initially killed was a plant employee. The other five, plus all four of those critically injured, were employees of a subcontractor who were installing insulation around pipes at the time of the explosion in the nearby mixing apparatus, he said.

Four of the injured were burned over at least half their bodies and were listed in critical condition at the Medical University of South Carolina Medical Center. Six others were admitted to other hospitals with burns and chemical inhalation, while the rest were treated and released.

The majority of the injured suffered burns rather than chemical exposure, Martin said.

Three of the injured died in the days after the explosion, bringing the death toll to nine:

  • Gregory A. Pye, 29, of Bonneau
  • Steven M. Evans, 35, of North Charleston
  • Timothy J. Chubb, 22, of North Charleston
  • Brian S. Kenny, 27, of Hanahan
  • Francis Smalls, 34, of Charleston
  • Richard Carl Westbury, 28, of Hanahan
  • Harold Gates, 38, of Summerville
  • Mark Anthony Hughes, 37, of Goose Creek
  • Dennis Douglas, 45, of Moncks Corner

At least three firefighters were also injured.

The plant, in an industrial area north of Charleston, produced phosphorus chemicals and phosphoric acid. The plant was evacuated and only firefighters and rescue workers were allowed near the scene.

Specialty chemicals company Lanxess, an unrelated company. purchased the phosphorus chemicals business from the Belgian chemicals group Solvay, including the Charleston site, back in February 2018.

Copyright 2020 WCSC. All rights reserved.