Sources say two people were killed in a chemical plant explosion this afternoon on Jacksonville’s Northside. Smoke is billowing from T2 Lab, an industrial building, following the mid-afternoon explosion that witnesses said left the area looking like a war zone. Witnesses said debris from a mid-afternoon explosion went several stories into the air. Chris Parrish, 30, was working two warehouses down when he heard a hiss and then an explosion at about 1:30 p.m.
“In all seriousness, the explosion was four stories high,” he told the Times-Union. Part of the ceiling was sheared off and damaged flying trees and debris, according to a another witness who works across from the warehouse.
Shands Jacksonville spokeswoman Kelly Brockmeier said at least three ambulances were at the hospital. One man was taken into the decontamination center in the north garage at the hospital, as about a dozen people huddled around him.
Fire officials established a command post in the area. The Red Cross is establishing a shelter at a nearby school.
The company is the main office of T2 Laboratories Inc., a subsidiary of Millennium Chemicals in Iselin, N.J. A company web site says the business makes turpentine-based solvents, particularly a product called Ecotane, an octane enhancing additive for gasoline. The company web site refers to a new building at the location, but records on building permits were not immediately available.
There was a fire and series of explosions at the same site in June 1998 that forced the evacuation of about 100 residents. The cause was never determined.
The Florida Department of Transportation is reporting that Faye Road is closed in both directions near the explosion. New Berlin at Faye Road also is closed. Fire officials have evacuated the area within a half-mile radius.
A Times-Union reporter at the scene reported seeing flames several stories high.
Derek Pratt, 24, was flying a remote control airplane at a field about a mile away when he heard a series of explosions and a smoke plume extending hundreds of feet in the air.
“Those shock waves came straight through these hills,” he said. “It was just like Hiroshima.”
Pratt said he went up a hill and saw another explosion.
“It was like a great ball of fire in the air,” he said. “Pink insulation from the building was falling on us. Clouds of it.”
The explosion sent about 50 workers in a warehouse across the street diving to the floor. Another witness said pieces of the ceiling of his building was sheared off in the blast. “You saw pieces of pipe 20 feet long flew across the street and through the ceiling. If there was somebody in there pray for them,” Tony Padrigan said.
Another witness said flying debris reminded him of being back in Vietnam. “It was like napalm in the morning. Stuff was still blowing up when I left there,” said Howie Gipson.
A company in a year-old building three doors from the explosion suffered severe damage said John Swearingen, who was at the scene shortly after the explosion.
“It blew our roof off and blew the safety doors right off the hinges,” he said. “It picked one guy up and threw him into a rack but he did not get hurt.”
Swearingen said no one in the Masthead Hose Company building was injured.
Swearingen said he works for a business that represents the industrial hose company.
A passing truck driver said heat from the fire melted his cell phone. He searched a truck at the site of the explosion but found no one inside. He and another truck driver used fire extinguishers to keep the fire from spreading to a nearby woods.
Update: 4 people have now been confirmed dead, 14 injured.