Monday marks 4 years since church shooting, 28 since deadly plant explosion

Updated: Jun. 17, 2019 at 12:29 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Survivors and families of the victims of two Charleston tragedies are remembering their loved ones Monday.

June 17 has come to be known as the date a gunman opened fire in a downtown killing nine people. But nine people also died on that same date in a plant explosion 24 years earlier.

The explosion happened on the morning of June 17, 1991, at the Albright & Wilson Americas, Inc. plant. Last year, the mother of the youngest victim of the explosion, 22-year-old Tim Chubb, said there wasn’t a day that goes by in which 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,” Barbara Chubb said.

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)

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.

The Charleston County coroner at the time, Ray Shokes, reported sheets of corrugated aluminum siding that had covered the building were strewn across the grounds of the plant.

“The building just looked like it was blown apart,” he said.

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.

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
  • Steven M. Evans, 35
  • Timothy J. Chubb, 22
  • Brian S. Kenny, 27
  • Francis Smalls, 34
  • Richard Carl Westbury, 28
  • Harold Gates, 38
  • Mark Anthony Hughes, 37
  • Dennis Douglas, 45

At least three firefighters were also injured.

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.

A different company, Lanxess Corporation, purchased the facility in February 2018 from Belgian chemicals group Solvay.

It would be 24 years later that gunfire erupted inside Mother Emanuel AME Church, a historically African American church on Calhoun Street, at the conclusion of a Bible study.

Church members welcomed a stranger into their group that Wednesday evening.

Attendees filed past a makeshift memorial of flowers and messages to the victims of Wednesday's...
Attendees filed past a makeshift memorial of flowers and messages to the victims of Wednesday's shooting. (Photo Source: Live 5)

That man, Dylann Roof, then 21 years old, would open fire during the ending prayer. Eight of the victims died at the scene and a ninth died at an area hospital a short time later.

The church’s lead pastor, who was also a state senator, were among the victims:

  • The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41
  • Cynthia Graham Hurd, 54
  • Susie Jackson, 87
  • Ethel Lance, 70
  • Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49
  • Tywanza Sanders, 26
  • Rev. Daniel Simmons, 74
  • Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45
  • Myra Thompson, 59

Roof was arrested within 13 hours of the shooting during a traffic stop in Shelby, N.C. The FBI said Roof claimed he wanted to start a race war.

Two days after the killings, he appeared before a county magistrate to determine whether bond would be set. About four dozen people, a number that included relatives of those who had been gunned down, turned out to see the man who, in the words of Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, had committed this act of “pure, pure concentrated evil.”

Some of the family members said they forgave him. One urged him to repent and give his life to God while others asked God to have mercy on his soul.

By the time of that hearing, bouquets of flowers, stuffed animals and balloons overflowed on the sidewalk outside the church. Prayer vigils were scheduled. Churches across the city made plans to simultaneously ring bells that Sunday morning.

That night, thousands of people formed a human “Bridge to Peace” on the Arthur Ravenel Bridge.

Over the next days, mourners would pack worship centers to remember the victims. Then-President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama attended Pinckney’s funeral. Obama delivered a eulogy ending with an impromptu rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

In the aftermath of the church shooting, then-Gov. Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the Statehouse. The flag came down on July 10.

A federal jury decided in January 2017 that Roof should be put to death for the killings.

After the ruling, Melvin Graham, the brother of one of the victims, Cynthia Graham Hurd, said he hoped the sentence would send a message that this community would not tolerate such hatred.

“When my sister was killed, this community pulled together in a way I’ve never seen before,” Graham said."I just wish that feeling, that love that we show each other in the City of Charleston and the state of South Carolina, and around the nation, the warm words, the prayers that came in will continue."

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