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Two Hurt in Illinois Chemical Plant Explosion

Blue Island Phenol plant manager Bill Moffatt was on his way to investigate a release of chemical vapors Friday morning when a fiery explosion rocked the chemical factory in Alsip.

"I was in the office building, and it shook the office building," Moffatt said. "We have a suspended ceiling and some tiles fell out of the ceiling."

Two factory employees suffered burns in the explosion and were taken to Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn and transferred to Loyola Medical Center in Maywood. They were in stable condition, Moffat said during a news conference Friday afternoon.

He said the plant employs about 100, and about 20 people were inside Friday afternoon, not all of them employees.

The explosion occurred about 11:30 a.m., triggering a major emergency response from up to 40 fire departments. Huge plumes of thick black smoke could be seen billowing from the plant, 131st Street and Homan Avenue, resulting in road closures on Kedzie Avenue and Pulaski Road.

As a precaution, about 150 people in buildings west of the plant to Pulaski Road were evacuated. With help from a high-powered sprinkler system inside the plant, the fire was extinguished at about 2:20 p.m.

Moffat said the explosion and fire followed a chemical release in the factory's cumene unit, which manufactures phenol and acetone. The process to produce the chemicals runs continuously, and the two reactors used to store the chemicals were not damaged in the incident, Moffatt said.

"It's not like there was a runaway reaction or anything," he said.

A decontamination unit was at the scene, and a hazmat team was monitoring the air, Alsip Fire Chief Tom Styczynski said, adding that he did not believe the fire and resulting fumes posed any threat to nearby residents.

One building at the plant, a storage facility, was destroyed and others were damaged, Styczynski said. He said three chemicals used at the plant - propylene, propane and benzene - were "involved in the ignition" of the fire, although the cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Styczynski said the inside of the plant "mirrors what a refinery looks like," with pressurized piping and cylinders and flammable liquids.

Only about 10 firefighters doused the flames inside the factory with water, with most of the fire suppression being done by sprinklers and unmanned firehoses that were installed in the plant following a fire there in 2008, the chief said.

He said a pool of "residual oil" in the plant ignited at one point, causing dark clouds of smoke to billow in the sky. He estimated the fire itself was contained to a space of about 100 by 100 feet.

Seth Poncinie, a Chicago State University student who lives about three blocks away, said he heard a muffled noise just before noon and then his entire house shook.

"I thought it was an earthquake at first," Poncinie said.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the explosion. Scott Allen, a spokesman for the agency, said the plant has been cited by OSHA for violations multiple times, including a violation for occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals in a laboratory after an inspection in February. The plant received a $1,000 fine.

Contributing: Joe Biesk, Donna Vickroy



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