Remembering deadly West Pharmaceutical explosion 15 years later

Published: Jan. 29, 2018 at 8:40 PM EST
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Monday, January 29th, marks the fifteen year anniversary of a violent and deadly explosion right here in eastern Carolina.

For those who lived through it, the West Pharmaceutical explosion in Kinston is something they'll never forget.

Initially, it was thought that an airplane may have crashed into the building.

North Lenoir Fire Department Assistant Chief Danny Smith Jr. says, "It was a very hectic scene, a lot of chaos."

George Smith III, North Lenoir Fire Protection President remembers, "People running out to the road, no clothes on, covered in cuts, bleeding, skin hanging off, screaming bloody murder, and we knew that most of the time there would be a tremendous amount of folks working in that plant."

William Barss, Kinston Fire Department Captain saw, "A sea of people running out, you know crying for help, please help me, coming directly to you, and we just had to push them to the responders behind us so we could get to our job to find the people who were reported inside still."

At just 18-years-old, Danny Smith Jr. was among the first firefighters to arrive after the explosion.

He says, “When I originally pulled in, it was a lot of fire, a lot of smoke, and a lot of people.”

His squad, the North Lenoir Volunteer Fire Department, was soon joined by every fire department in Lenoir County and beyond.

Barss remembers escorting a survivor across a ceiling beam about a foot-wide, dozens of feet off the ground, and literally hanging on for dear life.

Barss says, "In doing so, the smoke shifted down to us and we couldn’t see anything. We had to stop operations. I remember my captain telling me, don’t move, and I told her, don't worry ma’am. I can’t see."

The crews were going through about 10,000 gallons of water every minute. At one point, fire trucks were visiting hydrants to fill up on water and bring other water systems online.

And it was a lot more personal than you might expect. Smith Jr. says, "People running up to you, calling your name, and saying hey, get my friend out, she’s over there, he’s over there. You know it was just so big and so fast."

Smith III says, "There was a young lady trapped inside the building, screaming, things like that you’ve got to kind of live with and work through your emotions with, and I knew her, everybody knew her. She was a friend."

There are so many memories that are heartbreaking and disturbing that linger in this empty field off the Harvey Parkway in Kinston where the plant used to stand.

There were the six who died, but also, Jim Edwards who lost his sight, but gained a new perspective.

Edwards has come a long way since his three months in a medically-induced coma at the Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill after the blast.

Edwards says, "I think I’m doing good. I’m getting out, enjoying people, friends."

Edwards remembers the explosion, attributed to combustible dust, vividly. He remembers the last person he laid eyes on before going blind. He remembers waving for help. The firefighter who spotted him, who happened to be Danny Smith Junior.

Edwards has accepted, even embraced his blindness, preferring instead to keep his perspective pointed on the positive saying, "What happened that day is a tragedy, yes, but at the same time, it helped me out to understand everything, what’s going on, and that I’m still here for a reason."

Still here like West Pharmaceutical, in their new plant on Highway 70, and like the firefighters who put the lives of others before their own and they would do it again.

The six people who lost their lives in the blast were James Byrd, Kevin Cruiess, Allen Earl "Butch" Grant, William Gray, Milton Murrell, and Faye Wilkins.

West Pharmaceutical says 320 people currently work in the plant they built after the blast.