Explosion rocks Connellsville; 2 injured
Connellsville resident Joe Taylor said it's common to hear noises from the manufacturing businesses across from his North Fourth Street home, where he's lived for the past 12 years.
But when he heard a man screaming on Wednesday morning, he knew something had gone horribly wrong at the building used by New York-based O.C. Lugo Co. Inc.
City police Chief Jim Capitos said two company employees were mixing red phosphorus and Fiberglas powder in a quart-sized container in their lab when the mixture exploded at 7:08 a.m.
Philip E. D'Auria, 41, of Connellsville, who was holding the container, lost three fingers, Capitos said. He was taken to UPMC Mercy in Pittsburgh by medical helicopter.
D'Auria, who was undergoing surgery yesterday afternoon, was in “stable but critical” condition, Fayette County EMS Chief Rick Adobato said.
Employee Todd Allen Brooks, 41, of Everson was taken to UPMC Mercy by medical helicopter because he was suffering from smoke inhalation and a ringing in his ears. He will be kept there for 24 hours of observation, Adobato said.
According to Capitos, mixing red phosphorus and Fiberglas powder is a routine step in mixing four chemicals together to make chemical igniters for oxygen generators, used in Navy submarines.
O.C. Lugo was awarded a one-year, $15 million contract with the Navy to make chlorate candles and oxygen candle igniters used in oxygen generators, according to a March 13 news release from the Department of Defense.
Carnegie Mellon University chemical engineering professor Paul Sides said that mixing red phosphorus with Fiberglas powder likely didn't cause the explosion.
“Something doesn't quite make sense,” Sides said. “Something else must have gone wrong.”
“A company representative told me that they were using a 50-year-old process to make these, and nothing like this has ever happened before,” said Guy Napolillo, chief of the Fayette County Hazardous Materials Response team.
“They still don't know exactly what happened. There's a million things that could have gone wrong from a contaminated chemical to static electricity,” he said.
Although the explosion was violent enough to blow out some windows of the small white building, leased from Bradley Paint Co., the resulting fire was small and contained, according to Adobato.
There was no structural damage to the building, said Chief Bob Topper of the city fire department.
Firefighters immediately wheeled out of the building a cart where the chemicals were being mixed, Topper said. The air smelled like a freshly lit match, Adobato said.
Topper said the smoke given off by the fire was non-toxic but could irritate the lungs, throat and eyes of a person if it were inhaled.
Police evacuated a few homes in a one-block radius, Capitos said.
Sandy Straughters, 58, said she awoke to police pounding on her front door.
“It was scary,” she said. “Only because I didn't know what was going on. I just did what they said and left immediately.”
Straughters and her black Labrador retriever went down to the nearby Youghiogheny River for about an hour until she could return home. Straughters, who has lived in her home for 58 years, said she's concerned about fumes or lingering chemicals.
“I had no clue what was in there,” she said.
Topper said firefighters ventilated the building until about 10 a.m., when O.C. Lugo sent in a cleanup team.
An employee who answered the phone at the company's New York office said it had no comment.
Napolillo said companies with certain quantities of semi-hazardous materials must provide the Fayette County Emergency Management Agency with a list of what is on the property. O.C. Lugo, however, did not have enough of any chemical to file a report, Napolillo said.
Police will continue to investigate, Capitos said.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration will conduct an investigation, administration spokeswoman Leni Fortson said.
“By law, OSHA has a total of six months to conduct its investigation and release its findings, Fortson said.
Mark Hofmann, a reporter with Trib Total Media, contributed. Jewels Phraner is a reporter with Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-1218.