September 9, 2008

‘Some Kind of Detonation’

By Tom Mooney

One man is in serious condition with chemical burns after a cyanide accident at Attleboro metals processor Stern-Leach.

ATTLEBORO -- A routine mixing of a cyanide solution yesterday morning at a jewelry fabrication plant caused a chemical "explosion" that seriously injured one worker, sent two dozen others to area hospitals as a precaution, and drove Massachusetts and federal environmental officials to test the air for contaminants, the police said.

The incident occurred shortly before 9 a.m. on the third floor of the Stern-Leach plant on Pearl Street when a worker mixed two water- based solutions containing sodium cyanide and hydrogen peroxide. Cyanide is a dangerous chemical that can cause respiratory failure.

The combined 2 1/2-gallon mixture is used often to clean and separate metals such as silver during the metal fabrication process, "but somehow there was some kind of detonation," said Edmund Coletta, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

More than 200 plant workers quickly evacuated as special hazards crews and ambulances from area towns converged on the three-story brick building located in the midst of several streets of tenement houses on the outskirts of downtown.

One man whose name was not released was listed in serious condition with chemical burns at Rhode Island Hospital, a spokeswoman said.

Metal polisher Sergio Ortiz, 43, who has worked at the plant for 10 years, described hearing a deep explosion and seeing white smoke from his job location on the other end of the third floor.

"Everyone started yelling, 'Get out,' " he said. "We know there are a lot of chemicals over there."

Fellow employee Ken Vanvoorhis, 34, of Plainville, Mass., described an orderly evacuation.

On the job only two weeks, Vanvoorhis said he worked on the second floor and saw as many as three people with what appeared to be a white powdery substance on them as he left the building.

"It made me pretty nervous," he said.

As the workers stood in the company's adjacent parking lot, emergency crews set up a yellow decontamination tent in front of the building and escorted as many as 30 employees through, said police Capt. David Proia. The workers stripped, were showered with water and a cleaning agent and then given white hooded jumpsuits to wear before being taken to area hospitals for evaluation.

"If people were exposed but are without symptoms, it typically does not cause problems down the line," said Dr. Jason Hack, a medical toxicologist at Rhode Island Hospital, one of the hospitals that has a cyanide antidote it can administer if needed.

Proia said police officers and representatives of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration were interviewing workers to determine the cause of the explosion.

"We're not 100-percent sure what happened at this point," he said.

Proia said none of the workers taken to hospitals was showing any symptoms of injury.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency in Boston sent a representative and five contracted specialists to the site to monitor the air in and around the building: "We did not get any positive results for hydrogen cyanides," said spokesman David Deegan.

Stern-Leach, part of The Cookson Group, is the market leader of fabricated gold and silver alloys, according to its Web site.

The business closed for the day following the incident. Before leaving the parking lot, company security officers scanned the workers with metal detectors to assure no one was leaving with precious metals. Workers said the scanning is done daily.

According to The Journal's archives, a buildup of hydrogen gas triggered an explosion that shattered about 40 windows of the 49 Pearl St. building on March, 17, 2000, and forced the evacuation of 300 employees for about an hour.

The stress of the 2000 incident sent five people to the hospital, two by ambulance, although no one was physically injured, Deputy Fire Chief George Bellavance said at the time.

Stern-Leach employees in Attleboro leave a decontamination tent yesterday following a chemical explosion yesterday at the company's facility. More than 200 workers were at the plant at the time of the incident. The Providence Journal / Bill Murphy

A firefighter yesterday directs employees of Stern-Leach in Attleboro after they leave a decontamination tent set up at the site.

Employees of Stern-Leach wait in line after exiting a decontamination tent, where they were showered with a cleaning agent following a chemical accident. More than 200 plant workers were evacuated yesterday morning. The Providence Journal / Bill Murphy

[email protected] / (401) 277-7359

Originally published by Tom Mooney, Journal Staff Writer.

(c) 2008 Providence Journal. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.