TWO dead, one missing after explosion and chemical fire; hundreds evacuated

Saturday, July 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

RIVERVIEW, Mich. (AP) _ Two men died and a third was missing following an explosion and fire at a chemical factory on Saturday.

Hundreds of homes were evacuated following the explosion at the ATOFINA Chemicals Inc. plant.

The victims were employees Edwin J. Wrobleski, 47, and Kenneth J. Cox, 56, said company spokeswoman Jane Crawford. Worker Terry Stein, 41, was missing, said company engineer Ron Potier.

``This is the worst thing I can remember in the plant's history,'' Potier said. ``We've always prided ourselves on plant safety.''

Two other factory workers were treated after inhaling fumes, said Riverview Hospital spokeswoman Jackie Swearingten.

A railcar containing a dangerous chemical exploded about 4:30 a.m. at the factory and was still burning seven hours later, said company engineer Ron Potier.

About 400 homes were evacuated in Grosse Ile, an island across the Detroit River from this suburban community. Another 40 homes were evacuated near the factory, but the area is mostly industrial, said Riverview fire Capt. Ken Williamson.

The burning chemical was methyl mercaptan, or methanethiol, a flammable substance used in pharmaceutical and agricultural products.

``It's extremely dangerous if inhaled directly,'' said Grosse Ile Township Clerk Ute O'Connor, describing the chemical's smell as like ``really bad body odor.''

``We're playing it safe in case the wind shifts,'' she said. ``We're basically saying if you can get off the island, go.''

Canadian authorities closed a portion of the Detroit River to boaters until further notice because of the fire, said U.S. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Jeff Dale.

ATOFINA, headquartered in Philadelphia, has 4,000 employees in 20 plants in North America and 16 others worldwide. The Riverview plant is the company's oldest, opened in 1898. It has 212 workers, said company spokeswoman Connie Wickersham.

ATOFINA is owned by owned by TotalFina Elf of Paris.