Survivors, first responders remember deadly Kinston explosion 20 years later

Survivors, first responders remember deadly Kinston explosion 20 years later
Published: Jan. 27, 2023 at 7:00 PM EST
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KINSTON, N.C. (WITN) - Sunday will mark the 20th anniversary of an explosion that changed Lenoir County forever. In 2003, a blast at a manufacturing facility killed six people and hurt 30 others.

WITN talked with first responders and survivors as they look back at a day that will stay with them forever.

“I didn’t hear [anything]. Everything turned white, and that was it,” said Jim Edwards, who was working the day of the explosion.

January 29th, 2003 is not an easy day for him to remember. It’s the day he lost his eyesight - the day six co-workers were killed and nearly 40 hurt in a massive explosion at West Pharmaceutical.

Edwards remembers waving for rescuers to help him. We’ve caught up with him over the years to check on his progress.

“I was burnt, 63 percent of my body. I hurt every day for about six months,” he explained. Investigators believe combustible dust, built up over the years, caused the blast.

At 1:30 in the afternoon, Kinston Fire Captain William Barss was one of the first to respond.

“From the east side, you can see this big huge black plume, and we were just driving towards that black plume, not knowing what was going on,” said Barss.

Driving into chaos - after an explosion that could be heard as far as 25 miles away from the Rouse Road plant.

“People were screaming yelling, and some people, you could actually see their injuries,” Barss explained. He distinctly recalls guiding one of the injured plant workers to safety.

“He had his hands up, and I can remember the injuries that I saw, and he’s pleading with you. ‘Please sir, don’t touch me, please, don’t touch me. I’m burning.’ I said, ‘I understand, but I gotta get you onto this ladder safely.’”

It wouldn’t be until the following day that first responders could leave.

“We were actually there when shift change which was 8 o’clock in the morning,” Barss explained.

Roger Dail was the Lenoir County Emergency Services Director at the time. He uses a timetable of what happened that day as a learning tool.

He remembers efforts to make sure the hundreds of employees on the schedule were accounted for after the computer system for clocking in and out shut down. He said the plant manager and supervisors had to recall every single name.

As the years pass by, Dail said he tries to focus on the good on display amidst the tragedy.

“I remember how well our community came together. That’s the stuff I choose to remember,” he said.

Edwards, too, who’s been changed forever by that day, maintains a spirit of optimism.

“The good Lord helped me out a lot, of keeping my... keeping me strong on everything and learning a different way of life when you’re not able to see anymore,” he said. “And just learning new techniques of walking and learning how to eat differently. Don’t think there’s something wrong just because you’re blind. You’re still a person.”

670 people now work at West Pharmaceutical’s new Kinston site on Sanderson Way.

In a statement on this 20th anniversary, West Pharmaceutical said they continue to honor and remember their team members affected by the explosion. They will mark Sunday with a private remembrance at the new plant.

There have also been new standards enforced to prevent this type of explosion from happening again, like new regulations for cleaning up combustible dust.

At the time, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board said even they had limited knowledge of those hazards.