1 dead, 3 others hurt in West Virginia chemical facility explosion

The explosion at a chemical facility in Belle erupted just after 10 p.m. Tuesday and prompted a warning to shelter-in-place for two miles around it.


A West Virginia chemical facility erupted into flames after an explosion Tuesday night, killing one person and leading to a 2-mile shelter in place order for area residents before the fire was under control and the order was lifted, officials said.

Four people in all were hurt in the blast, which happened just after 10 p.m. at Optima Chemicals — a tenant on the site of the Chemours plant in Belle, officials said.

John Gillenwater was killed in the explosion. His family is "devastated over the loss of their husband, father and friend," according to NBC affiliate WSAZ of Huntington. "John was beloved by many in his community and his church," the told the station

Among the injured was another plant worker and someone who was hit by debris.

Optima Belle LLC said that three chemical operators, including the man who died, were in the building when the incident at its chemical plant occurred. The other two were evaluated at a hospital and have been released.

Optima said preliminary information is that a 1,200-gallon metal dryer became over-pressurized during a chemical product drying operation, and what was in the dryer was a compound used for sanitation.

Kanawha County Commissioner Kent Carper told a local radio program Wednesday morning that there was a "massive explosion" at the site that sent metal debris onto an interstate and across the river.

The fire was under control by early Wednesday, Chemours said, and later that morning a shelter-in-place that had been issued for people living within a two-mile radius of the plant was lifted by emergency authorities.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, and the Kanawha County Commission expressed their condolences.

"Gayle and I send our thoughts and prayers to John Gillenwater’s family, friends, and loved ones, especially his wife Tina and their children," Manchin said in a statement.

Chemours formed as a spinoff from DuPont in 2015. The plant is along the Kanawha River in eastern Kanawha County.

Belle, with a population of around 1,100, is southeast of Charleston. The county commission said that the shelter-in-place order covered all of Belle, as well as the communities Marmet, Chesapeake and Chelyan.

Optima said it is cooperating fully in an investigation, and its thoughts and prayers go out to its employees, their families and the communities affected.