PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. (WSAV) — On the night of the Imperial Sugar Refinery explosion, 50 people were injured.
Some were treated at Memorial Health in Savannah while others were flown to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta.
“I actually received the phone call initially, immediately contacted Dr. Mullins,” said Beretta Craft-Coffman, a mid-level practitioner.
Dr. Fred Mullins says he initially thought his team was making a joke.
“I learned very quickly that is was real,” Mullins said, “We assembled a team of two physicians, two paramedics, and two midlevel practitioners, and we flew down there that night. Within an hour and a half, we were down there on scene.”
Twenty-one suffered life-threatening burns and were flown from Savannah to Augusta where Craft-Coffman was waiting for them. She helped coordinate the incoming patients.
“I think the first patient got here around 11 p.m. and the last patient came in about 6 a.m.,” Dr. Mullins said.
The explosions had been ignited by sugar dust. As Dr. Mullins explained, it was an intense heat explosion.
“We were seeing people with anywhere from 30 to 90 percent of their body burned; and a lot of the time they were burned very, very deeply,” he said.
Skin is the largest organ in the body and when it’s injured, a lot of ramifications can come with it. As Craft-Coffman explained, that can include respiratory failure, kidney failure and even bloodstream infections.
Six patients who were flown to Augusta did not survive their injuries, but 15 remained resilient.
“A lot of these were 3rd-degree burns so they wouldn’t regenerate on its own, so we did,” Dr. Mullins said. “Took a little tiny postage size stamp piece of their good skin, and they grew skin for them and sent it back, that’s how a lot of them survived.”
From Savannah to Augusta — family, coworkers, and strangers stood by their side.
“Social media wasn’t that popular back then, but we were texting,” Craft-Coffman remembered, “So we reached out to all of the nursing staff, the anesthesia department, let them know what had happened and people just started coming in.”
She said people brought in clothes and supplies — even their kids got involved.
“It was like a support that I had never really seen before, and it was an honor to be a part of,” she said.
The last patient left the burn center 10 months later.
“I do think that the burn patients had the best chance of survival by coming here,” Craft-Coffman said, “We want to be even better prepared for the next disaster, luckily we have not seen one in the last 10 years, and hopefully we never will.”
When asked what motivates him, Dr. Mullins said, “watching the patient walk out the door.”
Almost ten years after seeing that last burn victim walk out the door, the burn center is a much different place.
“We have more physicians, we have more nurses, we have more mid-level practitioners,” Coffman said, “We have a larger vision, a bigger spirit, people want to be a part of the burn center here because of the things that we do.”
Now, with 72 beds, Augusta is home to the largest burn center in the United States.
“It was a defining moment for the burn center. It showed, in all honesty, what we were capable of,” Craft-Coffman said, “For me, personally, it was a defining moment in my career. I can tell you, right now, all 21 names, they stay in my brain, they have never left.”