New info: Officials say only three confirmed dead in sugar refinery disaster - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

New info: Officials say only three confirmed dead in sugar refinery disaster

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February 8, 2008

PORT WENTWORTH, GA (WTOC) - The Savannah Fire Department is adjusting the number of fatalities from the fire at the Imperial Sugar refinery which began last night.

They are confirming three fatalities - not six, however they say there are three more workers still un accounted for.

Possibly as many as 17 people are right now unaccounted for according to Savannah-Chatham County Police Chief Michael Berkow, who made the remark during a news conference.

Authorities believe 95 to 100 people were working in the area when the plant exploded last night. More than 50 people have been taken to hospitals, with some airlifted to a burn center in Augusta, 130 miles up the Savannah River.

A spokeswoman for the burn unit at Doctors Hospital in Augusta -- Beth Frits -- says the unit has received 18 patients -- including 15 who are in critical condition. "I've never seen anything quite of this magnitude," a nursing supervisor there said.

Savannah Fire Chief Charles Middleton says firefighters have been unable to start recovery efforts because of the instability of the building and the fact that they're still fighting the blaze.

Officials have not determined what caused yesterday's explosion but say they suspect sugar dust inside a storage silo, which can be volatile. Witnesses described widespread damage.

The Red Cross is still at the scene of the fire, as well as other emergency workers. The Ware County/Waycross Emergency Response team sent two ambulances, along with four EMT's to the scene right after the explosion.

Port Wentworth Elementary School will be closed today after the sugar refinery explosion so emergency crews and others can continue using the site. 

 Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Kevin Lynn says the river is shut down to ship traffic from the port of Savannah while authorities search the river for possible victims. He says no deaths have been reported and no bodies have been found. He says there's no oil or other hazardous material in the water.

Imperial Sugar, based in Sugar Land, Texas, acquired Savannah Foods & Industries, the producer of Dixie Crystals, in 1997. The company Web site says the acquisition doubled the size of the company, making it the largest processor and refiner of sugar in the United States.

Imperial markets some of the country's leading consumer brands, Imperial, Dixie Crystals, and Holly, as well as supplying sugar and sweetener products to industrial food manufacturers. 

 The Associated Press contributed to this report.