Plant explosion victim's mother 'relives that day over and over,' decades later

The explosion happened shortly before noon on June 17, 1991. (Source: Live 5)
The explosion happened shortly before noon on June 17, 1991. (Source: Live 5)
The June 17, 1991, fire at the Albright & Wilson plant was believed to have been caused by an unexpected reaction as employees mixed chemicals. (Source: Live 5)
The June 17, 1991, fire at the Albright & Wilson plant was believed to have been caused by an unexpected reaction as employees mixed chemicals. (Source: Live 5)
EMS tended to the injured immediately after the explosion. (Source: Live 5)
EMS tended to the injured immediately after the explosion. (Source: Live 5)

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Sunday marks the 27th anniversary of a fatal explosion at a Charleston chemical plant.

Nearly three decades after the Albright & Wilson Americas Inc. plant explosion, those affected are still coping with the loss.

The explosion happened on the morning of June 17, 1991.

The youngest of the nine people who died as a result of the explosion, Tim Chubb, was 22 years old.

Decades later, his mother, Barbara Chubb, says there isn't a day that goes by where she doesn't think about those lost.

"You could be somewhere and you can hear something or see something and it all just comes back and I relive that day over and over and over in my mind," she said.

The 27th anniversary of the plant explosion is the same day as the third anniversary of the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting that left nine parishioners dead. It is also the day before the 11th anniversary of the Sofa Super Store fire that killed nine Charleston city firefighters.

Chubb says her heart is with those families.

"He stood there in the hallway and said, 'Bye, Mama.' That has rung in my ears all these year," she said. "That was the last thing he said. And it's not right for a young  man, for men to leave their families and go to work and never return."

Explosion claimed a total of 9 victims

It occurred shortly before noon as workers began mixing chemicals to make a flame retardant, Terry Martin, the company's employee relations manager, said.

Plant officials would later conclude an unexpected reaction led to the explosion. Initial reports stated six people died and 33 were injured.

Manager Grey Jennings said only one of the six initially killed was a plant employee. The other five, plus all four of those critically injured, were employees of a subcontractor who were installing insulation around pipes at the time of the explosion in the nearby mixing apparatus, he said.

Four of the injured were burned over at least half their bodies and were listed in critical condition at the Medical University of South Carolina Medical Center. Six others were admitted to other hospitals with burns and chemical inhalation, while the rest were treated and released.

The majority of the injured suffered burns rather than chemical exposure, Martin said.

Three of the injured died in the days after the explosion, bringing the death toll to nine.

The nine victims of the explosion were:

  • Gregory A. Pye, 29, of Bonneau
  • Steven M. Evans, 35, of North Charleston
  • Timothy J. Chubb, 22, of North Charleston
  • Brian S. Kenny, 27, of Hanahan
  • Francis Smalls, 34, of Charleston
  • Richard Carl Westbury, 28, of Hanahan
  • Harold Gates, 38, of Summerville
  • Mark Anthony Hughes, 37, of Goose Creek
  • Dennis Douglas, 45, of Moncks Corner

At least three firefighters were also injured.

Coroner: It 'looked it like it was blown apart'

Sheets of corrugated aluminum siding that had covered the building, one of nine buildings on the site, were scattered across the grounds of the plant, then-Charleston County Coroner Ray Shokes said.

"The building just looked like it was blown apart," Shokes said.

The unit where the blast occurred had been shut down the week before the explosion for routine maintenance and was restarted the day before the explosion. Jennings said at the time he did not think the explosion was related to the shutdown.

The blast was felt by neighbors of the plant. One man who lived several miles away said he felt and heard a rumble, looked out the window and saw a "huge mushroom cloud."

The fire was quickly brought under control, Martin said. Workers were starting a procedure to blend the chemicals in an enclosed mixing system, he said.

The plant, in an industrial area north of Charleston, produced phosphorus chemicals and phosphoric acid. The plant was evacuated and only firefighters and rescue workers were allowed near the scene.

The Lanxess Corporation, which now owns the facility formerly owned by Albright and Wilson, issued this statement on about the 27th anniversary of the incident:

Specialty chemicals company LANXESS successfully completed the purchase of the phosphorus chemicals business from Belgian chemicals group Solvay including its U.S. production site in Charleston, South Carolina, in February 2018.

This day is a sad moment in the history of our state and the Chemical Industry. The 1991 fatal incident will stay with us forever, and will never forget.

Today, our focus is to remember the team members we lost and to honor them by devoting all our energy and resources to assure this won't happen again.

Copyright 2018 WCSC. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved.