Corus staff had spoken out over fatal furnace

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The Independent Online

The massive blast furnace that exploded at Port Talbot on Thursday, killing two steelworkers, had been declared safe by management only weeks earlier.

An investigation of the condition of the structure at the Corus steelworks in south Wales had followed expressions of concern by workers, industry sources said yesterday.

One of the steelworkers who died was named as Stephen Galsworthy, who lived near the plant. The second victim was named last night as 20-year-old Andrew Hutin, from Port Talbot. His body was recovered from the site by a specialist rescue crew earlier yesterday.

Last night, five of the 13 employees injured in the accident were in intensive care at Morriston hospital, Swansea. Two were in a "more critical" condition than the others.

Industry sources said workers' concerns over the state of blast furnace No 5 had been allayed by management, who reviewed the condition of the structure last month.

Corus decided that routine maintenance of the 12-year-old furnace and "one or two improvements in the coming years" would be sufficient to keep the furnace going until 2005, when it would be relined. A spokesman for Corus said the condition of the furnace was "so good" that there seemed to be no need to take it out of commission.

Alun Cairns, a Tory member of the Welsh Assembly, whose 58-year-old father has worked as a welder at the plant for 30 years, said: "There have been worries within the steelworks during the weeks preceding the explosion regarding the condition of the blast furnace. There had been claims from within the Port Talbot plant that the blast furnace needed relining."

Mr Cairns said he heard about the explosion at about 6.30pm but could not contact his father until 9pm.

"I couldn't think of anything else until I had received the news that he was well. Other families in a similar situation sadly haven't heard the same news that I received and our sympathy is now with those who have been injured and those families that have suffered the greatest loss."

In Thursday's accident, hundreds of tons of white-hot metal punched a hole in the structure, engulfing furnace hands and maintenance workers.

South Wales Police and the Health and Safety Executive are investigating the explosion and neither would rule out criminal proceedings.

Family members of both men killed in the blast were receiving counselling from a family liaison unit of South Wales Police.

Hamish Laing, the clinical director of Morriston hospital, said the injuries suffered by some of the steelworkers were "very serious indeed".

He said: "We are experienced in burns of this type, but what is unusual is that we are dealing with so many patients at once. It was very shocking to see so many patients."

Alwyn Jones of the steel union ISTC said he had visited injured workers at the hospital and news of a second fatality would hit people hard.

The Rev Nigel Griffin, chaplain at Morriston hospital, sat with many of the families while they awaited news of their injured relatives.

Returning to the hospital yesterday morning he said it was a "very stressful" time for everyone involved. "Emotions were going up and down like a rollercoaster," he said. "Many of the families know each other well. Many of these men have worked as part of a close team for a long time. So it is very difficult for everyone. I am here to lend comfort to the families and to the staff."

Fire crews battling the blaze feared a series of devastating secondary fires would whip through the plant. Up to 80 firefighters were at the scene at the height of the conflagration, which sent plumes of flame shooting up to 100ft in the air.

Arwel Fowler, assistant chief fire officer with the Mid and West Wales Fire Brigade, said the risk of secondary fires was ever present. "The explosion fractured an oil line, which could in itself have created secondary fires. There was also nitrogen gas and other gases present and we had to establish that each of the gases which could ignite had been isolated.

"The furnace itself contained a large quantity of molten metal which could possibly have reacted if the conditions had been favourable."