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Criminal probe is launched in Conn. plant blast

Authorities looking for the cause of an explosion that killed five people at a power plant  launch a criminal investigation, saying they could not rule out criminal negligence.
Image: Damaged Kleen Energy Systems plant
The explosion left huge pieces of metal that once encased the Middletown, Conn., plant peeling off its sides. Douglas Healey / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Authorities looking for the cause of an explosion that killed five people at a power plant under construction launched a criminal investigation Monday, saying they could not rule out criminal negligence as the cause.

"If everything went right, we wouldn't all be here right now," Middletown Mayor Sebastian Guiliano said. "There's a point where negligence raises to the level of criminal conduct, and that's what we're investigating."

The powerful explosion blew apart large swaths of the nearly completed 620-megawatt Kleen Energy plant as workers for the construction company O&G Industries Inc. were purging a gas line Sunday morning. The blast tore apart sheet metal that covered the plant's sides and left parts of the complex so unstable that rescuers were unable to work Monday because of the danger of collapse.

The mayor said rescue crews had been unable to get to all areas of the plant and he could not say for certain that no more victims would be found. But authorities also said every worker who was assigned to work at the plant at the time of the explosion was accounted for.

Deputy Fire Marshal Al Santostefano said the death toll should stand at five.

"We needed something to lift spirits around here, and that definitely did it," he said.

The men who died were identified by Middletown police Monday as Peter Chetulis of Thomaston, Conn.; Ronald J. Crabb of Colchester, Conn.; Raymond Dobratz of Old Saybrook, Conn.; Chris Walters of Florissant, Mo.; and Roy Rushton of Hamilton, Ontario.

Kleen Energy said about 114 workers for nine subcontractors were on the site at the time. The company said six workers were still hospitalized Monday.

More than two dozen people were injured in the blast, according to hospitals in the area. Most were treated and released and had injuries characteristic of being thrown or in an explosion, such as broken bones and bruises, said Melissa Brady, a spokeswoman for Middlesex Hospital.

They were all expected to survive, she said.

Review of safety codes
Gov. M. Jodi Rell ordered a review of state safety codes on Monday. She created two panels, one to identify the cause and origin of the explosion and contributing factors, such as construction problems, worker safety issues and licensing or permitting matters. The other, a panel of state agencies, local officials and experts, will be charged with reviewing the first panel's report and determining whether changes need to be made to Connecticut laws, state or local regulations, building or fire codes.

Rell did not give a timetable but said the reviews need to be "impartial and swift."

Welders and other workers were at the site Monday, preparing to make it safer for emergency workers, said Ed Reilly, president of the Greater Hartford-New Britain Building Trades Council. Piles of rubble stood 10 feet high in some places, and mounds of lay everywhere, Santostefano said.

Investigators from the town fire marshal's office returned to the scene Monday to try to begin determining the cause. Investigators from Occupational Safety and Health Administration were also at the site, which was closed to reporters.

"I lost a couple of good friends up there," Michael Rosario, a representative of the local Plumbers and Pipefitters union, said as he broke down crying Monday.

"We hug our families, kiss our children. ... We go to work and we want to come home at the end of the day, safe," he said. "That didn't happen for a few people yesterday."

Surrounded by debrisThe blast left huge pieces of metal that once encased the plant peeling off its sides. A large swath of the structure was blackened and surrounded by debris, but the building, its roof and its two smokestacks were still standing at the site, which is near Wesleyan University on a wooded and hilly 137-acre parcel of land overlooking the Connecticut River.

A team sent by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, a federal agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents, arrived at the site Monday but was turned away by local police, said Daniel Horowitz, the agency's spokesman.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., said he was told a judge signed a jurisdictional warrant giving the police and local fire department the right to control the property, and that members of the congressional delegation and the governor's office were working together to "navigate the jurisdictional lines" defining who can be at the site.

"We want to make sure all critical agencies get to do their job," said Courtney, who visited the site on Monday.

The nearly completed 620-megawatt plant is being built to produce energy primarily using natural gas, which accounts for about a fifth of the nation's electricity. Workers for the construction company, O&G Industries Inc., a Torringon-based general contractor for the Kleen Energy project, were purging a gas line, clearing it of air, when the explosion occurred around 11:15 a.m. Sunday, Santostefano said.

The explosion occurred just outside the building, between two of the generators, Giuliano said.

Santostefano said workers were at the site Sunday because they were trying to get the plant open on time — the opening was slated for sometime in the middle of 2010 — but added: "It wasn't like they were working in a frenzy."