Conn. power plant blast kills several, injures 14

Liz De La Torre

From The Associated Press

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. – An explosion blew apart a power plant under construction as workers purged natural gas lines Sunday, killing multiple people and injuring at least 14 in a blast that shook homes for miles, officials said.

Betsy Hard, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, told The Associated Press that multiple people died in the explosion at the Kleen Energy plant but she did not know how many.

Fifty construction workers were in the section of the power plant where the explosion happened at 11:17 a.m., said Al Santostefano, the deputy fire marshal in Middletown, about 20 miles south of Hartford. He said he did not know what caused the explosion.

Hospitals that were treating the 14 wounded said late Sunday afternoon that they weren’t expecting more patients.

Dogs were searching for victims in the rubble, but there were no signs of life Sunday afternoon, he said.

“They are taking the building apart piece-by-piece now, the part that collapsed and came in, they are taking that apart in sections piece-by-piece, very carefully,” he said.

The 620-megawatt plant was being built to produce energy primarily using natural gas. Santostefano said workers for the construction company, O&G Industries, were purging the gas lines, a procedure he called a “blow-down,” when the explosion occurred.

Lynn Hawley, 54, of Hartland, Conn., said her son, Brian Hawley, 36, is a pipefitter at the plant. He called her from his cell phone Sunday to say he was being rushed to Middlesex Hospital.

“He really couldn’t say what happened to him,” she said. “He was in a lot of pain, and they got him into surgery as quickly as possible.”

She said he had a broken leg and was expected to survive.

Middlesex Hospital transferred one seriously injured person to Hartford Hospital and was evaluating another Sunday afternoon who might also be moved to Hartford for more intensive care, said Middlesex Hospital spokesman Brian Albert.

Two people were treated and released, and eight others were being treated for broken bones, abdominal injuries, blunt force trauma and other kinds of injuries consistent with being caught in an explosion, Albert said.

They did not expect to receive any more patients, he said Sunday afternoon, about four hours after the explosion.

A nursing supervisor from St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford said they had no patients from the explosion, and Hartford Hospital had two who were brought directly there after the blast, in addition to the one transferred later from Middlesex.

Several ambulances were seen leaving the scene of the blast without their lights on.

The thundering blast shook houses for miles.

“I felt the house shake, I thought a tree fell on the house,” said Middletown resident Steve Clark.

Barrett Robbins-Pianka, who lives about a mile away and has monitored the project for years, said she was running outside and heard what she called “a tremendous boom.”

“I thought it might be some test or something, but it was really loud, a definite explosion,” she said.

Kleen Energy Systems LLC began construction on the power plant in February 2008. It had signed a capacity deal with Connecticut Light and Power for the electricity produced by the plant. Construction was scheduled to be completed by mid-2010.

The company is run by president and former Middletown City Council member William Corvo. A message left at Corvo’s home was not immediately returned.

Calls to Gordon Holk, general manager of Power Plant Management Services, which has a contract to manage the plant, weren’t immediately returned.

Plants powered by natural gas are taking on a much larger role in generating electricity for the U.S. Gas emits about half the greenhouse gases of coal-fired plants and new technology has allowed natural gas companies to begin to unlock gas supplies that could total more than 100 years at current usage levels.

Natural gas is used to make about a fifth of the nation’s electricity.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell was on her way Sunday afternoon to the site after speaking with Middletown Mayor Sebastian Giuliano, and called out a specialized search and rescue team to help firefighters.

The state’s Emergency Operations Center in Hartford also was activated, and the Department of Public Health was called to provide tents at the scene for shelter and medical triage.

Rell said the emergency teams were expected to work through the night and into Monday.

Daniel Horowitz, a spokesman with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, said the agency is mobilizing an investigation team from Colorado and hopes to have the workers on the scene Monday.

Safety board investigators have done extensive work on the issue of gas line purging since an explosion last year at a Slim Jim factory in North Carolina killed four people. They’ve identified other explosions caused by workers who were unsafely venting gas lines inside buildings.

The board voted last week to recommend that national and international code writers strengthen their guidelines to require outdoor venting of gas lines or an approved safety plan to do it indoors.

In February 2009, an explosion at a We Energies power plant near Milwaukee burned six workers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is still investigating.

In the past few years, an explosion at a Dominion Virginia Power plant in Massachusetts killed three workers in November 2007, while one worker and nine others were injured at an American Electric Power plant in Beverly, Ohio, in January 2007.