‘This was our 9/11’ First responders recount Imperial Sugar explosion

PORT WENTWORTH, Ga. (WSAV) — The efforts of EMTs, firefighters and other first responders in the aftermath of the 2008 Imperial Sugar Refinery explosion was nothing short of a tall task.

What happened in those hours and days after is hard to forget now 10 years removed.

“This was our 9/11. We just went to work,” said Capt. Doug Struble with Chatham Emergency Services, formerly known as Southside Fire and EMS.

That night was almost like a scene from a movie.

“It’s a moment in your career you never ever will forget. There’s nothing that will compare to it. Hopefully,” said Capt. John McCrary with Chatham Emergency Services.

The property at the sugar refinery was lined with emergency vehicles as far as the eye could see.

All of them were headed to a burning heap of rubble that was once a towering small city staple on the banks of the Savannah River.

“I believe that we got all of the patients that we had that night, I believe, left the scene in an hour and eight minutes,” said Bengie Cowart, EMS chief of operations at Chatham Emergency Services.

Struble says the most critical patients were prioritized. In some cases, patients had to be flown from Memorial Health to the Augusta burn center.

After that night, first responders continued to spend days going in and out of the refinery doing what they do until the job was done.

“You had people going in and grabbing the ones they could get then it’s more of an in-depth search when they’re trying to locate somebody who may be in a void underneath that rubble,” said Asst. Chief William Handy of Savannah Fire and Emergency Services.

Handy was there that night as part of the fire department, as well as the days that followed. He was part of a massive air and ground effort to save the injured, find the victims and put out the flames.

“Because we were there over a couple of days, with the initial response and the people we rotated, it was upwards of 60, a little over 60 people,” Handy said.

As the fire burned on, a bigger problem emerged.

Many of the large fires were put out shortly after the explosion. But fires in the silos at the refinery burned for days after the initial explosion.

“I was asked the question, ‘Have you ever extinguished a sugar fire before?’ I said, ‘No. But I’m fixing to,'” said Chauncey Naylor of Williams Fire and Hazard Control.

Naylor is with a company that specializes in putting out silo fires that is based in Texas — nearly 1,000 miles away from the sugar refinery in Port Wentworth.

“We are going to rig equipment that will allow us to do a direct application of foam and water,” Naylor explained to reporters while at the refinery in 2008.

After hours of work, the silos were finally under control.

“They had a lot of things riding on the line. The community was upside down. It needed to be done. We were going to make it happen,” Naylor told News 3.

The flames are long gone. The clean-up is done.

Now ten years later, those saving lives and fighting the flames still haven’t forgotten.

“You don’t see the catastrophic events like this.  They’re rare.  You learn from them.  But, they’re not often and we don’t want to see them often.  If I never see another one, it’ll be a day too soon,” said Capt. David Cartee with Chatham Emergency Services.

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