I have never visited the West Pharmaceutical Services Inc. production plant in Kinston, N.C., but it is one facility I would like to see. The factory that produces a variety of rubber-based medical components has a history that includes tragedy, perseverance and now a sustained track record of growth.
The tragedy happened Jan. 29, 2003, at the West site that preceded the present factory. On that day, an explosion and fire leveled the facility, killing six workers and injuring 38 others, including two firefighters. The blast could be felt 25 miles away, and burning debris ignited fires in wooded areas as far as two miles away. A large fire at the plant burned for two days.
Fire crews, at the height of the battle, were going through 10,000 gallons of water a minute, according to a piece published in 2018 by local television station WITN on the 15th anniversary of the tragedy. The six people who lost their lives in the blast were James Byrd, Kevin Cruiess, Allen Earl "Butch" Grant, William Gray, Milton Murrell and Faye Wilkins.
It initially was thought that a plane may have struck the facility, according to WITN. But the explosion was much more standard than that. In September 2004, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board reported that the fuel for the explosion was a fine plastic powder, which accumulated above a suspended ceiling over a manufacturing area at the plant and ignited.
The report said that while dust removal and good housekeeping were priorities at the facility, "dust nevertheless accumulated above the suspended ceiling over time and went unrecognized as a serious hazard." Had proper safety practices been followed, the lead investigator concluded that the "tragic accident would likely have been avoided."