NEWPORT, Wash. – An explosion that ripped through an aerospace company in Newport late Tuesday night injured five employees, including one critically, and could have implications for the local economy.
“Obviously, they’re one of our largest employers,” said Jamie Wyrobek, economic development director for the Pend Oreille County Economic Development Council. “It’s right there in the top 10.”
The Newport plant is part of Zodiac Aerospace’s “Cabin and Structures” division, and produces the plastics and other composite material used in the production of airplane cabin interiors. It employs 104 people, said plant General Manager Mike Pound. Zodiac Aerospace is a multinational corporation, headquartered in France, that’s a key supplier to Boeing and Airbus. It has seven subsidiaries in Washington.
How long the factory will be shut down, the extent of the damage and the cause of the explosion is unknown, Pound said.
“We’re taking care of everybody,” Pound said. “The employees are our No. 1 concern, and we’re taking care of them and they’re fine.”
Newport City Administrator Ray King said the factory is an important revenue source for the city, with 62.5 percent of its citizens classified as being in a low- to medium-income bracket. As of the 2010 census, Newport’s population was 2,126.
“All I can say for them is they’re a top-notch company, and we’ve never had any issues with them,” he said.
A Wall Street Journal report questioned if the explosion in Newport could affect Boeing’s commercial jetliner production.
“At this time, we are working to determine what, if any, impact there may be to our production system,” a Boeing spokesman said in a statement.
Zodiac recently has had production and labor problems that are affecting shipments and delaying jet deliveries, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“I can’t speculate about the downstream effects,” Pound said when asked if the explosion would affect Zodiac’s ability to fulfill its contracts.
The explosion occurred late Tuesday evening and threw employees to the ground, blew windows out and lifted the roof off the walls.
“People heard the explosion from miles away,” said Grant Sirevog, the undersheriff for Pend Oreille County.
Two employees were transported to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane by helicopter. As of Wednesday night, Cristina Giannone, 33, of Newport, was in critical condition. Linda Bergerson, 68, of Oldtown, Idaho, was in stable condition.
Treated and released from Newport Community Hospital were Newport residents Becky Hogue, 45, and Marla Chute, 51; and Rebekah Chaney, 21, of Oldtown.
Plant employees were told not to speak to the media. An all-employee meeting was held Wednesday afternoon, Pound said. According to a Zodiac news release, crisis counselors were available to employees.
The Pend Oreille County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release that the explosion started at a Pre-Preg Treater machine, which creates carbon fiber and other composite materials used in the interior of airplanes. Pound said the explosion is still under investigation.
Jody Bauer can see the factory from her front porch. She said she heard and felt the explosion around 8:45 p.m.
Soon after, the fire department warned her about a potential chemical spill and a secondary explosion. She left with her 6-week-old son and her two other children. They spent the night with her parents.
“He’s the reason we left,” she said of her baby. “No, I don’t trust little lungs and chemicals.”
This morning she said her neighbors were picking shards of glass ejected from the factory during the explosion from their yard.
Although a Spokane hazardous material response team was dispatched, they were recalled when it was determined that the site did not pose a chemical danger.
Assistant Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer also responded to the incident. Although it’s still unclear exactly what happened, he said it could have been a flammable vapor explosion.
There were chemicals on site, including acetone and alcohol. Although there might have been a brief fire, Schaeffer said, the fire suppression systems likely extinguished it quickly.
“This is a big deal for this community,” he said. “They’re a huge employer.”
Emergency crews started to leave at 2 a.m. Shortly after, a Department of Ecology spill response team arrived to assess and minimize the environmental impact of the explosion. They left Wednesday morning.
Pound said there was no harm to the environment from the explosion.
Wednesday afternoon employees still were arriving at the plant, surveying the damage and retrieving items left inside the night before, including cellphones, wallets and all the fixings for an employee taco bar.
Although they were allowed to make brief trips in, they reported that parts of the building still were falling. According to the Pend Oreille County Sheriff’s Office release, the building is so severely damaged it’s deemed unsafe to enter.
“The damage done there is incredible,” Schaeffer said. “On the other side of the building there are doors that are blown off their hinges.”
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