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Published: Monday, 2/8/2010

Blast kills 5 at partly built power plant in Connecticut

FROM THE BLADE'S NEWS SERVICES

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. - An explosion that was heard and felt for miles destroyed a partially built power plant yesterday during a test of natural gas lines, killing at least five people and injuring several others.

Homeowners miles away said the explosion at the Kleen Energy Systems power plant created a shock wave so intense that some thought an earthquake had occurred. The explosion blew out neighboring houses' windows and cracked their foundations.

At least 12 people were injured in the explosion at the plant in Middletown, Conn., about 20 miles south of Hartford.

Deputy Fire Marshal Al Santostefano said last night that no one was known to be missing.


Strips of metal that once clad the plant were peeled off by the force of the explosion. The plant was being built to burn natural gas to produce electricity. Strips of metal that once clad the plant were peeled off by the force of the explosion. The plant was being built to burn natural gas to produce electricity.
JESSICA HILL / AP Enlarge

He said 50 to 60 people were in the area at the time of the explosion and multiple contractors were working on the project, making it difficult to account for everyone quickly.

Eddie Reilly, president of the building trades council in Hartford, confirmed that about 50 tradesmen were on site.

Hours after the blast, state police with specially trained dogs continued to poke through the building's twisted steel.

"There are bodies everywhere," a witness had said in the hours immediately after the explosion. At least 100 firefighters extinguished a fire that flared briefly. Crews planned to spend all night going through debris in case there were any more victims.


Emergency personnel and vehicles massed at the site. Crews were to spend all night going through debris from the explosion to check for more victims. Emergency personnel and vehicles massed at the site. Crews were to spend all night going through debris from the explosion to check for more victims.
JESSICA HILL / AP Enlarge

The cause of the explosion was unknown, and the investigation was to begin this morning, Mr. Santostefano said.

The 620-megawatt plant, which was scheduled to be completed by the middle of this year, is being built to produce electricity primarily using natural gas as a fuel.

Mr. Santostefano said workers for the construction company, O&G Industries, were purging the gas lines when the explosion occurred.

Lynn Hawley, 54, of Hartland, Conn., said her son, Brian Hawley, 36, is a pipefitter at the plant.

He called her from his cell phone to say he was being rushed to a hospital. "He really couldn't say what happened to him," she said. "He was in a lot of pain, and they got him into surgery as quickly as possible."

She said he had a broken leg and was expected to survive.

Officials had not released the conditions of the other injured people.

Barrett Robbins-Pianka, who lives about a mile away from the construction site and has monitored the project for years, said she was running outside and heard what she called "a tremendous boom."

"I thought it might be some test or something, but it was really loud, a definite explosion," she said.

Steve Clark, a resident of Middletown, said, "I felt the house shake. I thought a tree fell on the house."

Kleen Energy Systems LLC began construction on the plant in February, 2008. Work was 95 percent complete, Mayor Sebastian Giuliano said.

The firm had signed a capacity deal with Connecticut Light and Power for the electricity to be produced by the plant.

Energy Investors Funds, a private-equity fund that indirectly owns a majority share in the power plant, offered sympathy to the victims' families.

Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell visited the scene yesterday after calling out a specialized search-and-rescue team.

Ms. Rell announced last night that the state had imposed a temporary no-fly zone for a three-mile radius around the site, which she said was to ensure the safety of the search-and-rescue workers.

Daniel Horowitz, a spokesman with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, said the agency is mobilizing an investigation team and hopes to have the workers on the scene today.

Safety board investigators have done extensive work on the issue of gas-line purging since an explosion last year at a Slim Jim factory in North Carolina killed four people.

They've identified other explosions caused by workers who were unsafely venting gas lines inside buildings.

The board voted last week to recommend that national and international code writers strengthen guidelines to require outdoor venting of gas lines or an approved safety plan to do it indoors.

The Middletown explosion is among the most serious in a year, Mr. Horowitz said last night.

He said investigators will look closely at whether the purging process contributed to the explosion.

"This is an issue the board is very concerned about," Mr. Horowitz said. "We don't know if there's any connection at this point."



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