KINSTON, N.C. (WNCT) — Twenty years ago on Sunday, the deadly explosion at the West Pharmaceutical Services plant happened.
The explosion at the Kinston facility killed six workers and injured dozens of others. The fire burned for two days. It was determined by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard in an investigation that a build-up of combustible dust led to the explosion.
Fire and rescue, emergency management, law enforcement and other groups from Lenoir County and surrounding areas came together that day to save lives. Captain William Barss, now with the Kinston Department of Fire & Rescue, was one of many firefighters who helped during the incident.
“When you’re starting down the road and you look up, and there’s this big, huge black plume up in the sky, and that was like, ‘oh man, we’re going to that,’ you know?” Barss said. “Your mind starts thinking now there’s a real bad emergency, what are we going to do?”
Woody Spencer was the public information officer for Kinston Department of Fire and Rescue.
“I don’t think you can prepare for it,” Spencer said. “You can prepare for how to help people, how to save lives like that, but something that is at big as the West Pharmaceutical explosion, I don’t know a firefighter that said, ‘Wow, I’ve seen this before’ because they haven’t.”
Thick dark smoke was seen for miles around. The struggle to get to the fire and help people was amazing.
“There were hundreds of people coming out, yelling, screaming, ‘help me, help me.’ You could see their injuries,” Barss said. ” We had to push through this sea of people that were coming directly to us because we were the help. We had to get to that building.”
The dangers of the building, from the ruptured gas lines and collapsing ceilings to unstable floors, were just some of the many things crews had to deal with.
“Right there at the edge, the jagged edge, there was a gas line that had ruptured, and it was blowing fire straight up, and we had to cross over the fire, and get onto the beam and we’re walking on this two-foot beam,” Barss said.
The smoke was especially bad, Barss said.
“The smoke came down, it got pushed down on us and it was just nothing but black, we couldn’t see anything,” Barss said.
There were a lot of unknowns that day and rampant rumors about the situation.
“One of the rumors was a plane hit the building, there was another rumor that it was a terrorist attack,” Barss said.
Months later, a dust explosion was revealed as the cause of the deadly blast.
“There was a small dust explosion in a localized area, and when that exploded it shook the building,” Barss said. “Dust became free and started floating from the rafters and everywhere else that dust was collected and that caused the ultimate explosion, blowing off the roof.”
January 29, 2003, is a day that still sticks with both men.
“About 8 or 9 o’clock, someone came up and gave me a baloney sandwich, that was the best baloney sandwich in the whole wide world I’ve ever eaten,” Barss said. “The second biggest memorable part was just everyone being there. all of the emergency services coming together and just clicking. We were doing. It didn’t matter what department you were on, we were doing.”
“They all pitched in, they all did the best they could, and that’s why I think that’s why lives were saved. Any life lost is terrible, but to save those that you can is what it’s all about,” Spencer said.
The explosion changed Kinston. West Pharmaceutical Services was rebuilt several miles away. All that’s left of the former facility is an empty field and a lasting mark on the people of Kinston from that tragic day.