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Chemical plant blast rocks town near Boston

An explosion at a chemical plant sparked a massive fire and destroyed homes and businesses, but caused only minor injuries, officials said.
A chemical plant explosion damaged this bakery shop on Water Street in Danvers, Mass., on Wednesday.
A chemical plant explosion damaged this bakery shop on Water Street in Danvers, Mass., on Wednesday.Chitose Suzuki / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The explosions were powerful enough to give people more than 20 miles away a shudder. Jim Glavin, watching TV at home across the street, got a lot more than that.

A chemical plant erupted early Wednesday morning with two blasts that threw Glavin off his couch and twisted his house on its foundation.

The 70-year-old’s kitchen floor was littered with shattered windows and the contents of his cabinets. His back door, blown off the hinges, was resting on the opposite stairs. Floor supports in his cellar were knocked over.

Outside, a ball of flame rose high above the neighborhood.

“I thought for sure a plane exploded,” Glavin said. “I’d swear I was in Lebanon or something. I’ve never been so scared in my life.”

Glavin called out to his son and daughter, and they joined hundreds of their neighbors in a quick exodus.

Amid physical devastation, no deaths
The 2:50 a.m. explosions leveled the chemical plant and wrecked 25 homes beyond repair. Dozens of other buildings were damaged — roofs ripped off, windows blown out. The roof on a building holding a pizza shop and bakery was torn open and caved in.

Perhaps the only thing as shocking as seeing parts of the centuries-old neighborhood turned to ash and tangled wood and metal was that no one was killed. Of more than 300 people nearby, 10 suffered injuries — all minor.

“The miracle is you have the equivalent of a 2,000-pound bomb going off in a residential neighborhood at night when everybody is home, and no one’s dead and no one is seriously injured,” said Gov. Mitt Romney, who toured the site.

Emergency crews from more than 30 surrounding cities and towns responding to the explosions in Danvers, about 20 miles northeast of Boston.

Officials said it could take weeks to reconstruct and determine the cause of the accident at CAI Inc., a manufacturer of solvents and inks.

Fire Chief James Tutko said the nearly 90 homes in the neighborhood all suffered some damage, and up to 25 may need to be rebuilt. The neighborhood, which dates to the 1700s, is a tightly packed mix of homes, industrial buildings and businesses that predates zoning rules.

‘It looks like a war zone’
Residents in the most severely affected areas would not be allowed back into their homes until at least Friday, Tutko said at a press conference Wednesday night.

Staff from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross were scheduled to staff an assessment center Friday and Saturday to help displaced residents.

“It looks like a war zone, that’s the only thing I can say,” Tutko said.

In one condominium across the nearby Crane River, the blast was so strong it bowed a woman’s bedroom windows, sucked her curtains out and then returned the unbroken glass and frames to their original position — with the curtain tops attached to the rod inside but the curtain bottoms fluttering outside in the breeze.

Bakery owner Luis Ferreira was working overnight making bread and pies for Thanksgiving customers when “all of the sudden — boom — and everything gets dark.”

Through the flour and dust, employees called out to each other.

“We had no idea what happened at the time. We just got out of there,” said Ferreira, who suffered scrapes on his face and wore a bandage on his temple.

The Red Cross established a relief center at Danvers High School, which immediately filled with 100 elderly and disabled residents of the New England Home for the Deaf. Some were picked up by family members, while others were taken to a hospital.

Slumber may have saved lives
U.S. Rep. John Tierney, D-Salem, said the fact so many people were prone — asleep in bed — may have prevented more injuries.

“You can see where the blast went in one window and blew out through windows on the opposite side of the house,” he said.

CAI owner Paul Sartorelli said plant officials were “shocked and devastated” by the accident. “We don’t know anything right now,” he told the Boston Herald. “We’ve just been 100 percent fully cooperative with the authorities. We don’t have any answers.”  

The company was inspected once, in 1990, by federal officials and no violations were found, according to Ted Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The lack of inspections indicates few complaints were filed with OSHA, he said.

“A lot of people never knew it was there, that’s how benign they were,” said one neighbor, Jack Fratus.