CHARLESTNON, W.Va. -- Witnesses reported seeing a red fireball and feeling a blast as far away as Charleston, after an explosion was reported at the Bayer Crop Science Plant in Institute at 10:35 p.m. Thursday. The explosion was heard at least as far away as Mink Shoals.
Nitro Police Chief Jack Jordan said there were reports of one fatality, but he could not confirm the information shortly past midnight. A Kanawha County Sheriff's deputy said one person was missing. There was one injury confirmed as of midnight, a plant worker who suffered third-degree burns and was taken to the hospital, Kanawha County Manager Brent Pauley said.
The deputy said he had heard reports of smaller explosions at the plant, but he could not confirm the information as of midnight. Jordan said shortly after midnight that there were reports of "multiple explosions going off." Other officials reported at least two explosions, and emergency personnel reported a fire still burning inside the plant at 12:30 a.m.
At 12:10 a.m. Friday, officials said they still did not know what caused the main explosion. A Bayer plant representative was on the way to the emergency operations center to tell them what was going on, Pauley said.
Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper, who was in North Carolina Thursday night, said he was trying to decide if an evacuation was necessary.
The main explosion started in the plant's Larvin unit, Pauley said. The unit is involved in manufacturing pesticides, Nitro Fire Chief Ernie Hedrick said.
The unit houses multiple chemicals, and officials didn't know which ones were involved, Pauley said, so they issued the shelter-in-place as a precaution.
No flames were visible in the area as of midnight, but a thick haze had settled over the area.
"The fire is pretty much contained at this stage of the game, but we need to know what's in the air," Pauley said.
Joe Saunders, police chief for West Virginia State University, said WVSU was sheltering its students in place. South Charleston Mayor Frank Mullens said his city's residents had been told to shelter-in-place. Kanawha County Metro 911 Director Carolyn Charnock said "everything west of Charleston" was told to shelter-in-place.
Police closed W.Va. 25 and Interstate 64 in both directions around the Institute exit. At 11:35 p.m., police blocked U.S. 60 westbound into Nitro, after Nitro police reported the haze forming in the middle and western part of the city.
A Putnam County dispatcher reported no shelter-in-place for Putnam County shortly after midnight. Authorities there were dealing with traffic back-ups.
"We live two miles away and it blew all the curtains in. It was a force through my window that was pretty incredible," Dunbar resident Gail Ferguson said of the initial explosion.
WVSU Patrolman Robert Flinn was parked in his cruiser with his back to the plant. "It was like someone shot a giant spotlight on us," he said. "There was a giant mushroom-type cloud about 100 feet high [and] flames shooting from the building.
"I was just waiting on a customer and all of sudden I felt a big boom, like an earthquake-type deal," said Sue A. Royal, an attendant at the Go-Mart across W.Va. 25 from the Bayer plant. "It looked like lava exploding out of a volcano."
"I could feel the explosion then I stepped out on the deck and could see the sky had lightened up," said Bill Raglin, a Kanawha County school board member who lives about a mile outside Institute.