Dozens feared dead in blast at medicines factory

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Dozens of people were feared dead after a massive explosion ripped through a pharmaceuticals factory in North Carolina yesterday.

Dozens of people were feared dead after a massive explosion ripped through a pharmaceuticals factory in North Carolina yesterday.

According to a preliminary count, eight workers were killed and 16 injured. But hours after the blast, state police said as many as 100 people were unaccounted for.

About half of the 225-strong workforce at West Pharmaceutical at Kinston were on the day shift at the time of the blast, 1.30pm (18.30GMT). It was heard more than two miles away, and sent a vast plume of thick, black smoke into the air. Woodland near by was set ablaze by fiery wreckage from the factory.

As the inferno erupted, some workers managed to escape, but 16 were taken to local hospitals with burns, five of them in critical condition.

As the first victims were carried from the scene, one local official at Kinston said an unknown number of people were trapped inside. "We're still trying to get them out," he said. Emergency rooms were warned to expect more casualties. By the late afternoon eight people were confirmed dead by a hospital spokesman.

The disaster was as sudden and spectacular as it was deadly, reducing the main building to a skeleton of charred and twisted girders.

Four hours after the explosion, which sent two giant metal water towers flying into the air, acrid clouds of smoke continued to spew from the gutted buildings. "It looked like an atomic explosion," an eye witness said.

West Pharmaceutical makes medical devices, specialising in syringes and intravenous drip equipment. One witness said the air reeked of burning rubber. "The blast blew the roof off 400 feet down the road. It caught all the woods on fire."

Police denied initial reports that a small plane had crashed into the building. There had been a plane flying in the area at the time of the explosion, but it had subsequently been accounted for, a spokesman said. The cause appeared to be internal, he added. According to the American workplace safety agency, OSHA, the plant was inspected in October. It was cited for numerous violations and fined about $10,000 (£6,000), a spokesman said.

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