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Blast caused by acid reaction

THE FALLOUT: Two NHBB employees remain hospitalized; facility reopening today

  • Governor Maggie Hassan and fire officials gave a press conference regarding the NHBB explosion on Feb. 11, 2014.
  • Governor Maggie Hassan and fire officials gave a press conference regarding the NHBB explosion on Feb. 11, 2014.
  • Governor Maggie Hassan and fire officials gave a press conference regarding the NHBB explosion on Feb. 11, 2014.
  • Emergency crews responded to a four alarm explosion at NHBB, Monday, where 15 or more people were injured, including two people who had to be airlifted to Mass General and Dartmouth-Hitchcock facilities.
  • Emergency crews responded to a four alarm explosion at NHBB, Monday, where 15 or more people were injured, including two people who had to be airlifted to Mass General and Dartmouth-Hitchcock facilities.

PETERBOROUGH — The New Hampshire Ball Bearings plant is set to reopen today, after the company’s maintenance workers spent Wednesday clearing debris from the first floor, which was rocked by an explosion Monday afternoon that sent 15 people to hospitals.

Two NHBB employees remain hospitalized Wednesday, after being flown by helicopter from Monadnock Community Hospital in Peterborough to hospitals in Massachusetts.

According to Peterborough Fire Chief Joe Lenox, one was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and the other to UMass Medical Center in Worcester, Mass.

The names of those workers or information about the extent of their injuries has not been released.

On Wednesday, District Chief Keith Rodenhiser of the State Fire Marshal’s office said the cause of the explosion has been determined to be directly related to a nitric acid reaction. The previous day, Deputy State Fire Marshal Max Schultz said the investigation appeared to point to an acid room, where N.H. Ball Bearings workers surface treat ball bearings, as the initial point of the explosion. Nitric acid is an oxidizing agent and commonly used in industrial processes.

In a press release, Rodenhiser said the facility was turned back over to NHBB management so the company could begin remediation and clean-up. Clean Harbors Environmental Services will be assisting the effort over the next several days.

Cleanup was in progress on Wednesday at the plant, where the explosion blew out windows on the side of the building facing Route 202.

“The building has been checked throughly,” NHBB spokesperson Hans Baker said Wednesday morning. “A lot of what we’re doing is getting debris out of the area affected. We hope to get up and running in all unaffected areas on Thursday.”

In the afternoon, Baker announced that operations in most departments will resume today on all three shifts, starting with the 7 a.m. first shift. He said the company may not be operating in the parts of the building affected by the blast.

Baker said the company will be posting updates about when employees should report for work on its website, www.nhbb.com.

In a letter to employees posted on the website, NHBB President Gary Yomantas, who works in the company’s Chatsworth, Calif., corporate headquarters, described the event as “the worst industrial accident” in his 40 years with the company.

“Our primary concern is for the well being of our employees,” Yomantas wrote. “We are grateful that there were not more injuries, and that for the most part, the injuries sustained were not severe. However, two of our employees were seriously injured and are still in the hospital. We have been in contact with their families to offer our full support. Our hearts go out to them during this difficult time.”

Yomantas said that employees who are unable to work due to the plant shutdown or limited operations will be paid their normal base wages.

“As we ramp up operations, employees will be called back as quickly as possible — this may mean working in their own areas or to support other departments.”

Baker said the company has set up an employee assistance center at a satellite training facility at 375 Jaffrey Road, where counselors will be available to talk to workers.

“We want to be able to give people who aren’t at work any help they might need,” he said.

On Tuesday, Schultz said most employees reported hearing one loud explosion, but some reported hearing two, with a smaller one preceding the large one. The state Fire Marshal’s office will be investigating whether there were two explosions or one.

In his press release, Rodenhiser said a final report on the exact origin of the explosion and any recommendations will not be made for several weeks, as interviews are being done and documents, samples and evidence is being collected and analyzed. The investigative team is made up of members of the state Fire Marshal’s office, OSHA and the NH Department of Environmental Services.

Rich Bardellini, vice president of manufacturing at N.H. Ball Bearings, said a structural engineer will be examining the building before any employees are allowed to return.

“We will not have our employees return to work until both New Hampshire state officials and NHBB’s management team are convinced beyond any doubt that everyone will be safe,” Bardellini said on Tuesday.

Gov. Maggie Hassan visited the plant site on Tuesday afternoon. At the time, NHBB had not announced its plan to continue to pay workers. Hassan said if workers were not paid, they would will have the Department of Employment Security available to them.

Hassan said state officials from the Department of Environmental Services and regional hazardous materials teams were on the scene on Tuesday to investigate any possible environmental concerns as a result of the explosion. Testing of the catch basins, culverts, and the water runoff from the sprinkler system, which went off in reaction to the explosion, did not show any contamination, she said.

Hassan commended the enormous response from emergency officials at the time of the accident.

The company also expressed gratitude in its statement today for the many emergency response teams that have been working at the scene since Monday afternoon: “All of us at NHBB are grateful beyond words for the response we received from our New Hampshire emergency teams: ambulance/rescue crews, fire crews, local and state police, HAZMAT teams, OSHA officials, fire investigators, and many others. The response was overwhelming, immediate and complete.”

N.H. Ball Bearings does regular yearly evacuation drills, said Fire Chief Joe Lenox, and employees did a good job following procedure immediately following the explosion, which helped to reduce injuries. Lenox said that Peterborough had two ambulances with paramedics on board at the scene within three minutes of being notified.

“It was a textbook mass casualty incident,” Lenox said on Wednesday. “We sounded the additional alarms rapidly. That was probably the key thing, not to hold off too long. The first crews could tell it was a pretty serious incident.”

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