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Working In These Times

Thursday, Feb 18, 2010, 9:04 am

Fatal Conn. Gas Blast Followed Worker’s Frantic Last-Minute Evacuation Call

BY Lindsay Beyerstein

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An aerial view of emergency crews at the Kleen Energy Systems plant in Middletown, Conn., where an explosion took place on February 7.   (Photo by Douglas Healey/Getty Images)

A worker put out a frantic last-minute radio call to evacuate the Kleen Energy Systems plant just before a massive explosion tore through the facility on February 7, killing 5 workers and injuring 27 others.

Someone issued the last-minute evacuation warning after monitors picked up a sudden spike in airborne natural gas, according to the Hartford Courant, which broke the news today, citing unnamed workers and investigators. (The story is a first-rate piece of investigative journalism that I strongly encourage you to read in full here.)

It's not clear who gave the warning. One of the men watching the monitors was killed and the other was severely injured. The monitors themselves were damaged in the blast, but investigators hope they can still read the chips inside them.

Workers told the Courant that that they'd been smelling gas all day. The smell was so bad that some complained of dizziness and others left the building of their own accord. At the time, workers expressed alarm that welding and other work continued despite the pervasive smell of gas.

No local or state fire-safety official was present during the gas-line purge that being conducted, even though the operation is considered highly dangerous. Nor is there any regulation or law requiring an official presence during such an operation. 

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) called for national standards for purges after touring the blast site on Tuesday.

On the day of the explosion, workers were attempting a "blow down" or purge of the gas lines. Investigators told the Courant that the effluent was being pumped outdoors into a man-made depression. Investigators think that the blast occured during the final purge, when gas accumulated in a courtyard between two 200-ft towers. One on-site investigator told the newspaper that the purges created a "giant swimming pool of natural gas."

Two days after the explosion, the Hon. George Miller, chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor agreed to hold a hearing to investigate the incident at the request of three Democrats from Connecticut: Reps. Joe Courtney, Rosa DeLauro, and John Larson. A date has not yet been set.

The State of Connecticut convened its own special investigative panel this week. The panel will take the state police investigation as its starting point in an attempt to uncover possible deficiencies in safety, supervision, or training at the plant.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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