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2 dead, 2 still missing after Waukegan chemical plant explosion

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 5/5/2019 By Frank Abderholden, Dan Moran and Erin Hegarty, Chicago Tribune
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Video by WGN-TV

GURNEE, Ill. — Investigators plan to return to the site of a Waukegan chemical plant Sunday to try to determine the cause and recover victims of an explosion that could be felt for miles and left two dead, two missing and three hospitalized, officials said Saturday.

Fire officials continue to investigate and have not said what caused the Friday night explosion at AB Specialty Silicones, which spread debris up to a mile away and caused more than $1 million in damage, authorities said.

The body of one victim was removed from the explosion site, Lake County Coroner Howard Cooper said Saturday. Another victim, Allen Stevens, 29, of Salem, Wis., died at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office. He was initially taken to Vista Medical Center East and transferred to Loyola where he was pronounced dead at 11:50 a.m. Saturday.

“We are shocked and heartbroken by the tragedy that occurred in our plant last night. 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,” according to a statement issued to media and attributed to Mac Penman, general manager of AB Specialty Silicones. “We want to express our extreme gratitude to all of the first-responders who arrived at the scene. We continue to work closely with the Waukegan Fire Department and the Illinois Fire Marshal as they secure the scene and complete their investigation.”

Cooper said crews suspended their search for the two missing employees because of concerns about the stability of the structure.

“We do believe we know who all we’re looking for,” Cooper said. “We believe we know where they are at this point.” Cooper said families have been notified, but names of the victims have not been released. A Monday autopsy is scheduled for the victim removed from the explosion site.

a construction site: Debris can be seen as emergency personnel and others search and clear the scene of an explosion and fire at AB Specialty Silicones chemical plant on Saturday, May 4, 2019, in Waukegan, Ill. Four employees of the chemical plant were hospitalized and another three had been reported missing following the explosion late Friday.

Debris can be seen as emergency personnel and others search and clear the scene of an explosion and fire at AB Specialty Silicones chemical plant on Saturday, May 4, 2019, in Waukegan, Ill. Four employees of the chemical plant were hospitalized and another three had been reported missing following the explosion late Friday.
© Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS
 

The explosion at AB Specialty Silicones was felt and heard as far away as Libertyville, Fox Lake and Kenosha and Racine Counties in Wisconsin around 9:45 p.m. Friday. AB Specialty Silicones manufactures and distributed silicone chemicals, according to the company’s website.

“It shook our house and shook my insides,” said Megan Hener, who lives on Atlantic Avenue six blocks from the scene. She and her husband, Robert, drove to the corner of Northwestern and Sunset avenues and posted a photo of the leveled building on social media.

“It was massive,” she added. “I’ve had friends from Antioch, Grayslake and Libertyville call to see if I am all right.”

Nancy Carreno, who lives on Atlantic Avenue near the plant, said the explosion didn’t break any windows but it was loud.

“The explosion was a big boom and the ground shook. Our cable TV flickered and the electricity, and then it came back on,” Carreno said.

Waukegan Fire Marshal Steven Lenzi said the first arriving crews “were quickly overwhelmed” by flames at the plant, which is on the city’s far northwest side near its border with Gurnee.

About 15 minutes after the explosion, the Lake County sheriff’s office issued an alert via social media stating that “we are aware of a very loud explosion sound and ground shaking in the Gurnee area. We are working to determine the cause.”

About 20 minutes later, a follow-up post from the sheriff’s office alerted the public to “stay out of the area of Sunset Avenue from Green Bay to Delany, Waukegan! Please allow first-responders to conduct operations!! Area first-responders are on the scene of an explosion/building fire.”

Four people were treated and transported to area hospitals, Lenzi said in a statement. Two were initially taken to Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville and two to Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan.

Two firefighters also had minor injuries, Lenzi said, and were “evaluated.”

“The conditions are really rough in there,” Lenzi said in the hours after the explosion. “There’s a lot of damage. There was a lot of fire throughout.”

The fire marshal said crews will resume recovery efforts after the remaining structure is torn down. Demolition was expected to be done within 24 to 48 hours, Lenzi said Saturday.

Bob Danielson, owner of nearby Amerikal Products Corp., 2115 Northwestern Ave., said AB manufactures a variety of water- and chemical-based silicon products, including the silicon used in the lining of shingles and silicon equipment used in heat-set web printing.

“They’re a good company. They ship products all over the world. We buy some of their products — silicon emulsions — we sell to the printing industry,” Danielson said.

Amerikal, which manufactures chemicals, equipment and filters for the printing industry, suffered about $250,000 in wall and roof damage from the explosion, even though its building is at least a half-block away from AB, he said.

Jacques Terrault, maintenance supervisor at nearby Woodland Foods, said he arrived less than 45 minutes after the explosion, but police would not let him get to his building to turn off natural gas and make sure it was secure until Saturday.

Late Friday, Mayor Sam Cunningham appeared near the scene and thanked first-responders working on “this unfortunate situation.”

According to a statement issued at 4:45 a.m., fire personnel from Waukegan and Lake County agencies worked with hazardous materials crews and structural collapse technicians, including personnel from Cook County, in both fighting the fire and searching for the missing employees.

The statement added that “conditions worsened and other products from the plant caught on fire” during the effort. According to the company website, AB Specialty is a manufacturing and distribution company specializing in silicone products.

Pieces of metal and debris from the building remained on the ground across the street from the plant Saturday afternoon as police, fire and demolition crews remained on the scene.

Curious motorists slowed down to look at the destruction and pedestrians gathered across the street to observe and take photos of the remains.

Lenzi said they have accounted for nine employees who were in the building at the time of the explosion.

While numbers are not yet official, more than 100 fire personnel responded to the fire Friday night. Crews came from as far as Schaumburg, Cook County and Bristol, Wisconsin, Lenzi said.

Debris covered cars parked on the west side of the building Saturday afternoon while Northwestern Avenue north of Sunset remained closed and lined with emergency vehicles.

Large pieces of metal and other debris remained in the grass field between the plant and the American Outfitters Ltd. building, which had windows were boarded up. Debris also traveled across Sunset and Northwestern from the building. Sections of the sidewalk and grass were cordoned off by yellow police tape.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has been monitoring the air and runoff water in the area. “They have not reported any major area of concern,” Lenzi said.

If residents find debris in their yards, Lenzi said he is not aware of any contaminants that interfere with debris removal. He advised people use gloves to remove any pieces of debris and wash their hands afterward, as with any other type of debris removal.

Hazardous materials crews have been on the scene of the explosion testing the air quality, and there are currently no contaminants in the air that would cause harm to people in the area, Cooper said.

After the bodies of the two missing employees are recovered, officials will focus more on a cleanup plan, Cooper said.

Waukegan officials are still advising people stay away from the area of the explosion.

“So many people are driving by slowly and not paying attention — it’s a danger scene from that,” Lenzi said.

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(Lake County News-Sun freelance reporter Phil Rockrohr contributed. Frank Abderholden and Dan Moran are News-Sun reporters. Erin Hegarty is a Naperville Sun reporter.)

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©2019 Chicago Tribune

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