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Three dead after N.C. blast

Survivors found clinging to 2nd story steel beams

A black cloud of smoke is seen from the air at the West Pharmaceuticals fire.

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CNN's Miles O'Brien talks to a local worker who describes the massive explosion at a North Carolina pharmaceutical plant (January 29)
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-Headquarters in Lionville, Pennsylvania
-Global pharmaceutical technology company
-Designs, manufactures and sells stoppers, closures and medical device components

Source: The Associated Press

KINSTON, North Carolina (CNN) -- A massive explosion and fire Wednesday gutted a pharmaceutical supply plant, killing at least three people and injuring more than two dozen others -- about 12 of them critically.

Fire officials said late Wednesday that they had accounted for all of the missing.

The tragedy struck at the heart of this tight-knit community in eastern North Carolina.

"It's very emotional to think that this can occur in the city of Kinston," said Mayor Johnnie Mosley, who has friends who worked at the plant. "The magnitude of this incident is just devastating to all of us."

Chief Darryl Rainer of the North Lenoir County Fire Department said the blaze would continue to burn through the night and fire crews were doing their best to keep it under control.

"We have made rescues and there are confirmed fatalities," he said.

Among those rescued were three or four workers who were clinging to steel beams in a second-story penthouse area when rescuers arrived. Each had suffered second- and third-degree burns.

The cause of the blast was not known, and investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were on the scene. The plant last fall was cited for 30 safety violations, but a state official said the company had fixed everything and was in line with state code.

The explosion at West Pharmaceutical Services, which makes syringes and other plastic medical supplies, occurred about 1:30 p.m. when about more than 100 workers were on the job.

The fire charred nearby woods and gutted the massive complex. A makeshift triage center was set up on the lawn outside the factory, with medical helicopters and ambulances rushing the injured to hospitals.

Authorities recommended residents within a mile radius around the plant to evacuate.

The explosion was so powerful it blew doors open on houses more than a mile away and sent debris flying, with some pieces landing more than two miles away.

"It blew the roof off a good 400 feet down the road, and it got all the woods on fire," said Jack Lambert of Segrave Aviation, located near the factory site. "There was pandemonium. You could feel it in the air."

City Manager Ralph Clark said, "It was a tremendous explosion."

Family members of plant workers gathered at Emanuel Church, anxiously awaiting word on their loved ones. A list of names of employees who have been accounted for was read at the church, as family members held hands and wept.

Judy Ferguson said her brother-in-law was working at the time. "I found out he's OK," she said, adding that he helped injured victims on the scene.

There were initial reports of a possible small plane hitting the building, which is located near a runway for cargo planes, but authorities later ruled that out, saying it was an internal explosion.

A spokeswoman for Lenoir Memorial Hospital in Kinston said it received 27 patients, including eight in critical condition. The spokeswoman said five of the critically injured were transferred to Pitt Memorial Hospital in Greenville, North Carolina; two others were taken to the University of North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill; and one was transported to the Duke University Medical Center.

Dr. Cherri Hobgood with the UNC burn center said the unit was treating a total of six patients in critical condition. Four of those were flown straight from the site.

"They have extensive injuries ranging from significant burns and also effects of the explosion, which are major traumatic injuries," Hobgood said.

The North Carolina Department of Labor had cited the plant last October for 30 violations, including 22 that were deemed serious.

Labor Department spokesman Juan Santos said the violations ranged from confined areas that should have been identified as containing potentially dangerous equipment or chemicals, to machines that didn't have the proper safety guards.

Santos said West Pharmaceutical Services was fined $9,075 as a result. He said the company did take the necessary steps to fix the violations and was currently "in good standing."

The stock of West Pharmaceutical was halted on the New York Stock Exchange after the explosion, which is typical following a calamity.

Kinston is a town of about 25,000 in eastern North Carolina, about 100 miles southeast of Chapel Hill.

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