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Explosion like ‘bomb’ injures 4 at West Virginia chemical plant

A large explosion at a West Virginia chemical plant threw debris over a mile late Tuesday night, injuring at least four people and forcing a nearby freeway and some schools to close, officials said.

All four people were hospitalized and officials told residents within a two-mile radius of the blast, about 15 miles southeast of Charleston, to take shelter in place. Classes at more than a dozen schools were canceled on Wednesday as a precaution, a county official said.

Authorities were investigating the cause of the explosion, which apparently involved dry chlorine and methanol, Kent Carper, chairman of the Kanawha County Commission said on Wednesday. Firefighters worked to stabilize the blast, which settled in a controlled torch overnight, he said.

“There were a lot of big concerns,” he said. “This explosion was so loud that people described it, they thought it was a plane crash or a bomb.”

The explosion occurred around 10:30 p.m. at Optima Chemicals Co., a tenant company that operates at the Chemours Company site in the town of Belle, Thom Sueta, a spokesperson for Chemours, said Wednesday. Emergency responders brought the blaze under control around midnight, he said.

“All Chemours employees were safe and sound and were counted last night,” he said in an email. “We understand that some Optima employees have suffered injuries.”

“The safety of site employees, emergency responders and the community was our top priority throughout the incident, so we waited until daylight to begin a thorough site damage assessment,” added Mr. Sueta.

One person was hit by flying debris and went to hospital, Mr Carper said, and the other three people were injured either by the fire or the explosion. The company did not disclose details of those injured, including whether or how they were related to operations at the scene.

Optima Chemical has two manufacturing plants in the United States: one in Belle, under an agreement with Chemours, and another in Douglas, Georgia. The company says it manufactures “sensitive, high-energy, high-risk chemicals” on a large scale.

Optima did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday morning.

Mr Carper, the chairman of the county commission, said the metal debris was detonated with such force that it was hurled hundreds of meters across the river, which is wide enough to that barges containing chemicals can pass in both directions.

According to preliminary information, he said, the site of the explosion was on a river bank. “Obviously some form of device exploded and blew up metal,” he said. The shell fragments were “very large in some cases.” They hit cars, they blew across the river, hundreds of yards from the explosion, from town to town.

He said firefighters smelled chlorine as they arrived at the site, which spans more than 700 acres.

Several companies are involved in the operations and management of the site, he said. “It happened inside the fence,” he said.

Concern over the explosion, Mr. Carper said, “has shut down the entire education system in this part of the county. A total of 13 schools were closed. About 20,000 people were affected by shelter-in-place orders and Route 60, a highway, was closed for several hours, he said.