3 dead, 1 missing after massive explosion at silicone plant in Illinois

An explosion and fire at an Illinois silicone factory has killed three people, authorities said Sunday, as they recovered the body of one victim from the rubble at the AB Speciality Silicone plant in Waukegan. One more body is believed to be in the debris, a fire official said


                            3 dead, 1 missing after massive explosion at silicone plant in Illinois

On May 4, a blast had taken place at around 9.30 pm local time at the AB Specialty Silicone plant in Waukegan. At the time the explosion and fire at the Illinois silicone factory had claimed two victims by Saturday and the official death toll was expected to rise to four as authorities suspended the search for two other bodies believed to be in the rubble. 

Search and recovery personnel found the body of another worker Sunday in the rubble, bringing the death toll to three employees with one more body believed to be in the debris, a fire official said. Waukegan Fire Marshal Steve Lenzi said the body was found as first responders resumed searching in hazardous conditions in the shattered remains of the AB Specialty Silicones plant in Waukegan, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Chicago.

They were searching for the bodies of two of the nine workers who were there when an explosion rocked the building Friday night and left it a shattered skeleton.  "We are in the process of removing one of those two bodies," Lenzi told a news conference Sunday. He said at least half of the building still needs to be searched.

Of the nine in the building at the time of the blast, one body was found early Saturday. Four people were taken to the hospital and one of those died later Saturday. The third confirmed death was the body located Sunday with one other body still to be recovered. Two other workers did not require treatment at the time.

Lake County Coroner Howard Cooper said that his office would perform autopsies Monday on at least two of the bodies and would announce the names of the victims and preliminary causes of death. Dental records would be used to identify at least one of the deceased, he said.

More than 100 firefighters from at least 30 departments responded to the scene. Crews had earlier suspended their search due to concerns about the stability of the structure, and Lenzi said they would not resume searching until what remains of the plant is torn down. The four believed dead were among nine employees who were inside the plant. 

Lenzi said it's unlikely the missing workers survived. "The conditions are really rough in there," Lenzi said. "There's a lot of damage. There was a lot of fire throughout."

Rescuers advised the general public to avoid the affected area. According to a witness, the plant is situated directedly across from an emissions testing facility.  

Vehicles are covered by rubble at the scene of an explosion at AB Specialty Silicones on Sunset Ave. and Northwestern Ave. on the border between Gurnee, Ill., and Waukegan. The explosion happened Friday night. (John Starks/Daily Herald via AP)

The information about the blast  was shared on Facebook by Illinois state Rep. Joyce Mason, D-Gurnee, who said that emergency personnel "expect to be working most of the night." "We are aware of a very loud explosion sound and ground shaking in the Gurnee area. We are working to determine the cause," the sheriff's office tweeted. 

Speaking to Chicago's WLS-TV, a witness said she "heard a large boom" and saw "debris and sparks flying everywhere." When she drove closer to the site, she saw a building "engulfed in flames" before another "large boom" went off.

That said, everyone is urged by the Lake County Sheriff's Office to stay out of the region so that rescue teams can conduct operations with ease.

The Chicago Tribune quoted Lake County Coroner Howard Cooper as saying that the death Saturday was at Loyola Medical Center in Maywood, Illinois. The plant typically operates 24 hours a day, mixing chemicals and other materials to make silicone, he said.

The cause of the explosion has not been determined, Lenzi said. The state fire marshal is investigating, along with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It could be days before crews are able to resume their search because heavy piping and other materials that were inside the 30,000-square-foot (2,787-sq. meter) structure pose a danger to firefighters and investigators, Lenzi said.

Mac Penman, general manager of AB Specialty Silicones, said in a statement that company officials were "shocked and heartbroken by the tragedy..."

"We have spent the day trying our best to support all of the members of our AB family as we attempt to process this terrible loss together," he said.

The company said it makes specialty silicone chemical raw materials for products such as adhesives, sealants and coatings. 

-with inputs from AP