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More Than 100 Injured in Sugar Refinery Explosion

ATLANTA -- More than 100 people were hurt Thursday night when an explosion rocked a sugar refinery near Savannah.

The explosion occurred shortly before 7:30 p.m. in a back room of the Imperial Sugar Co. facility, but the cause of the blast was unknown, said Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police spokesman Sgt. Mike Wilson.

According to the Savannah Fire and Emergency Services, there were 100 to 150 minor injuries and 20 serious burn or blast injuries, but no confirmed fatalities.

The plant, known to locals as the Dixie Crystals factory, an area landmark, is in Port Wentworth, about seven miles outside Savannah, and near the Savannah River.

Emergency personnel spent the first hour pulling people out of the building, officials said, and at 9 p.m. were still struggling to stop the spread of the fire.

Wilson said the injured were being taken to three area hospitals. No injuries were reported among the firefighters.

"There was fire all over the building," said Nakishya Hill, a machine operator who said she escaped from the third floor of the refinery, near the Savannah River.

"All I know is, I heard a loud boom and everything came down," said Hill, who was uninjured except for blisters on her elbow.

"When I got up, I went down and found a couple of people and we climbed out of there from the third floor to the first floor. Half of the floor was gone. The second floor was debris, the first floor was debris.

"All I could do when I got down was take off running," she said.

After the explosion, the Chatham County Emergency Management Agency activated its emergency and hazardous materials response plan.

More than 60 firefighters and paramedics from at least eight area departments converged on the scene, and tugboats with water cannons were brought up the Savannah River to help battle the blaze. At about 9 p.m. firemen were reporting trouble with water pressure and were attempting to tap into a 500,000-gallon water tank on the refinery's property.

According to the Imperial Sugar Web site, its Dixie Crystals operation in Savannah dates to the construction in 1916 of the Savannah Sugar Refining Corp. plant on 30.6 acres fronting the Savannah River. It quickly came to employ hundreds of people and today occupies more than 100 acres.

Imperial Sugar of Sugar Land, Texas, acquired Savannah Foods & Industries Inc. in 1997. The acquisition doubled Imperial's size, making it the largest processor and refiner of sugar in the country, according to the Web site.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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