PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. – Specialists arrived Tuesday to help extinguish a five-day-old sugar-refinery fire burning too intensely and deeply for standard firefighting to douse, and officials feared the deadly blaze could once again trigger explosions.
Thick masses of molten sugar were smoldering at temperatures as high as 4,000 degrees and three more fires ignited Tuesday, even after a helicopter dumped thousands of gallons of water.
“We’re dealing with a dormant volcano full of lava,” said Capt. Matt Stanley from the fire department in nearby Savannah.
Six people are confirmed dead in Thursday’s fire and two other workers remained missing Tuesday.
The fire was knocked back enough that emergency workers were able to expand their search area Tuesday, and they now say that 95 percent of the refinery has been combed. One search dog fell into a pool of hot molasses Tuesday, but suffered only minor burns on its hind legs and was able to go back to work, Stanley said.
Officials said they were able to remove five railcars that were blocking a section of the plant they have yet to reach. Port Wentworth Fire Chief Greg Long said if the progress continues, the entire blaze could be snuffed out by tonight.
“We have made marvelous progress,” said Long. “We’ve got a good hold on this and I don’t want to let it go.”
The sugar fire offers a particularly difficult challenge. Firefighters hope to extinguish it by cooling and solidifying the top layer of the smoldering sugar, forming an oxygen barrier to smother the fire below.
Local officials have called upon a Texas company that specializes in putting out oil and silo fires, Williams Fire Suppression. On Tuesday the company was hauling in specialized equipment from North Carolina that can pump out 6,000 gallons of water and foam a minute.
Port Wentworth residents are eagerly awaiting further word on the future of the refinery, the economic engine of this town of about 5,000.
“If you live in this city, if you don’t have a relative who works there, I promise that you know people who work there,” Mayor Glenn “Pig” Jones said. “The refinery is a cornerstone of the city, and I’ve got friends with four and five generations of family working there. When a grandfather retires, a grandson is hired.”
Seventeen workers remained hospitalized Monday – 15 in critical condition with severe burns – said Beth Frits of the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta. She said one patient was taken off a ventilator on Tuesday and was upgraded from critical to serious condition.