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Sugar tragedy anniversary brings responders together

POSTED: February 6, 2009 10:51 a.m.
Photo by Frenchi Jones/

Clayton Scott, director of the Chatham Emergency Management Agency, receives a gift from Scott Armbrister, Fort Stewart's director of plans, training, mobilization and security.

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Tomorrow will mark the first anniversary of a sugar dust explosion that shook the hearts and minds of people across South Georgia.
The Imperial Sugar Refinery Explosion, caused by the ignition of dust inside one of the refinery’s silos, set off a mas-sive fire in the 160-acre plant on the night of Feb. 7, 2008.
The blaze ravaged the plant’s infrastructure, and killed 13 people and injured scores more, 42 who were hospitalized.
Officials said that although the response of more than 100 regional, state and federal agencies to the incident was needed, the outpouring caused initial chaos on the scene and left many with questions about what could have been done differently that night.
On Wednesday, many of those same first-responders and emergency management officials gathered on Fort Stewart for a day-long Civil Support Conference.
Post officials said the conference was to inform agencies of what support the military has to offer, and to let them discuss the lessons learned and how to work together more efficiently.
Tony Fleeger, emergency and contingency planning officer for Fort Stewart, coordinated the event.
“It’s always better to exchange business cards in this kind of setting than at the scene of an incident,” he said. “Here, we can ask the question: ‘If this happens, what does it mean to me?’ ”
Clayton Scott, director of Chatham Emergency Management Agency, was the guest speaker.
He stressed the importance of continuous working relationships with other agencies, especially those that specialize in certain areas.
“One thing we learned is that fire departments needed to have structural engineers,” he said. “That place was a mess. It was an absolute junkyard. If the fire department had gotten structural engineers ahead of time, they could have had volunteers come out and dig through the rubble.”
He also told the audience that if there had been guidelines and procedures in place before the explosion there might have been less confusion and more chances for efficiency from agencies working together.
“One of the problems we had was with a lack of personnel accountability,” Clayton said. “There were 121 sugar refinery employees signed in that night. How many people do you think stopped to sign out after the explosion?
“On top of that, the first thing to go was the electricity. There was no computer to use to sign out.”
Clayton cited this incident for the reason why there were false reports early in the media.
“That’s why you create joint information centers,” he said. “The military has it down cold, but what do you do if you lose your business? Where are your records?”
 

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