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Cleanup Begins Following Pharma Plant Explosion

A vat was hurled out of the plant and landed some 30 feet away.

Investigators from the State Fire Marshal's Office examine a vat that was hurled out of the pharmaceutical plant and landed an estimated 30 feet away in Newburyport, Mass., Thursday, May 4, 2023.
Investigators from the State Fire Marshal's Office examine a vat that was hurled out of the pharmaceutical plant and landed an estimated 30 feet away in Newburyport, Mass., Thursday, May 4, 2023.
Keith Sullivan/The Newburyport Daily News via AP

NEWBURYPORT, Mass. (AP) — Authorities in Massachusetts on Friday identified the worker who died after a powerful explosion tore through a pharmaceutical chemical plant with a history of problems.

Acting Newburyport Fire Chief Stephen Bradbury III described Thursday's blast as a seven-alarm hazardous materials event and said crews were expected to resume cleanup Friday morning, including removing chemicals from the building. Authorities said there was no threat to the nearby population.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Friday that it had started an inspection into the company. The inspection is aimed at determining if the employer has complied with OSHA workplace safety and health standards. It could take up to six months.

Four workers were sent to a hospital, but were uninjured and released. The person who died was identified as Jack O'Keefe, 62, of Methuen, according to a spokesperson for the Essex County District Attorney's office.

The fire department said the body will be turned over to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

A hazmat team carefully removes barrels from an explosion site in Newburyport, Mass., Thursday, May 4, 2023.A hazmat team carefully removes barrels from an explosion site in Newburyport, Mass., Thursday, May 4, 2023.Keith Sullivan/The Newburyport Daily News via AP

The explosion happened around 1 a.m. Thursday at the Sequens/PCI Synthesis plant, officials said. Video showed most of the roof torn off a building, marking at least the third safety problem at the plant since 2020.

It wasn't immediately known what caused the explosion, or what — if any — chemicals were involved. Smoke from the fire blew into a largely unpopulated area, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which added that initial air monitoring found no significant problems.

The plant lies a little more than 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Boston and has had a string of mishaps over the years - prompting U.S. Sen. Edward Mark of Massachusetts to say the company needs to provide answers about what happened.

"We can't keep excusing companies' flagrant disregard for worker safety," he said in a tweet.

A chemical fire in the building in June 2021 sent smoke pouring out of roof vents and prompted a hazardous materials team to respond, according to a fire department statement at the time.

In 2020, authorities said a chemical reaction caused a series of explosions at the plant. That happened a year after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found "serious" violations in how the company managed highly hazardous chemicals, according to online agency records.

The factory has also been cited by OSHA for workplace safety violations and in 2019 paid a penalty of more than $50,000 to settle Environmental Protection Agency charges that it violated hazardous waste laws.


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