Investigation continues into an explosion, which kills two workers in Muskogee

Tuesday, December 28th 2004, 8:58 pm
By: News On 6

MUSKOGEE, Okla. (AP) -- One day after an explosion tore through a scrap metal plant and killed two people, people in nearby homes were cleaning up their damage Wednesday and federal investigators were trying to reconstruct the accident.

J.C. Smith, who lives across the railroad tracks from the Yaffe Iron and Metals plant, watched as a contractor replaced one of his doors, blown off its hinges by the blast. A handy campaign sign from the last local election filled a hole in his wall where a picture window used to be.

"That's pretty serious stuff right there," said Smith, assessing his damaged house. "I wouldn't be surprised if it was $15,000 to $20,000 anyhow."

Emergency workers found two badly burned bodies Wednesday morning in the wreckage of the plant. Yaffe company board chairman Bob Yaffe said the two workers killed were Ernesto Chavez, 24, and Joaquin Prada.

Prada was operating a forklift which lifts aluminum and puts it into the furnace, while Chavez was working behind it at the time of the explosion.

Chavez' father, Esteban Chavez, who works days at the plant, said through an interpreter that he last saw his son during the 3 p.m. shift change Tuesday.

"He was a good person, friendly with everybody," co- worker Eduardo Jimenez said.

The explosion at 8 p.m. Tuesday was so powerful it could be heard 50 miles away. More than a dozen people were injured, four seriously, and windows were smashed and doors blown in at houses in a five-block radius of the plant.

The remains of two men were found near the plant's oil-filled furnace that's used to melt scrap aluminum, said Darrin Smith, chief deputy of the Muskogee County Sheriff's office.

Investigators were trying to determine what caused the blast.

About a dozen families were forced to leave their damaged homes and spend the night in local motels. Nearby residents were initially evacuated after acrid smoke filled the air but were allowed to return after environmental tests determined the air was safe.

"The explosion started at the furnace," Smith said. "It was a horrific explosion. The furnace was in the ground. It blew it plum out of the ground."

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' explosion reconstruction team determined Wednesday morning that the blast was an accident and not a criminal act.

Andrew Yaffe, president of the company, said the plant had experienced only small explosions in the past, usually a slight noise and some smoke after a gas tank or other aluminum tank ended up in the furnace.

On Wednesday, firefighters rolled up their long hoses after extinguishing the last of the burning embers at the plant, now little more than charred, twisted steel girders.

Curious Muskogee residents drove through the working class neighborhood surrounding the plant, slowing as they passed houses hit particularly hard, while residents scrambled to board windows and call insurance agents.

At least seven windows were blown out of the Salvation Army building two blocks north of the plant, plywood covering the holes in the brick facade that withstood the force of the blast.

Smith, 68, said his insurance company advised him that an adjuster probably wouldn't arrive until Tuesday. He had also placed a call to a local glass company to replace several blown out windows.

What most worried Smith were the cracks in his ceiling -- so bad in the kitchen that the cabinets slumped so far forward their doors wouldn't stay closed -- and a buckled north wall.

The plant's ruined furnace was on Smith's mind.

"I hope they take it to Timbuktu," he said.