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Explosions rock commercial building in Newburyport; no injuries reported

The cause of the explosion was under investigation by the department and a hazmat team was dispatched to the scene by the state fire marshal’s office.Blake Nissen/For the Boston Globe

A series of explosions tore a hole in the roof of a chemical plant in Newburyport early Thursday, but workers and Newburyport firefighters safely evacuated before the second wave detonated, Deputy fire Chief Steve Bradbury said.

The cause of the explosion at PCI Synthesis was under investigation by the department, and a hazmat team was dispatched to the scene by the state fire marshal’s office, officials said. Investigators were slowly assessing the source and cause of the detonations, Bradbury said.

Firefighters responded around 4:30 a.m. after a central alarm was triggered inside the building, Bradbury said. Three firefighters were inside when the first explosions took place, he said.


"While we were investigating the cause of the alarm, we encountered smoke conditions in the building and two explosions,'' Bradbury said. "So we evacuated the building and we set up outside.”

When the firefighters and workers all were outside, there were four more explosions. One punched a 5-by-8-foot hole through the roof, he said.

No injuries were reported, according to a Fire Department statement. One company employee was evaluated by emergency medical services but declined to be taken to the hospital.

"This is a chemical company. They’ve been here a long time,'' Bradbury said. "They are a good company, and we are working to find out what is going on.”

At a second press conference , Bradbury said there was no threat to the public because the chemicals involved were solids, not gases.

The company said in a statement that Thursday’s incident "affected only one production suite, and 85 percent of the building is unaffected. Currently local authorities continue to assess the facility, and we are working closely with them. We have not been allowed inside the building yet. The immediate causes have not yet been determined.”

A company official later said employees would be paid while the plant was down.


The company was inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in January 2019, and workplace safety inspectors found nine violations, including seven of which were deemed "serious,” records showed. (Two additional citations were deleted by OSHA, records showed.)

All nine citations were violations of the OSHA safety standard for "process safety management of highly hazardous chemicals,'' according to OSHA records. The safety standards are designed for “preventing or minimizing the consequences of catastrophic releases of toxic, reactive, flammable, or explosive chemicals. These releases may result in toxic, fire or explosion hazards.”

PCI Synthesis was fined $86,266, an amount later reduced to $50,000 after negotiations with OSHA. OSHA has since closed the case. According to the agency, the company is nonunion. OSHA is on scene, a spokesman said.

In its statement Thursday, the company noted that in January 2019, “we were fined by OSHA for issues mainly related to the robustness of our documentation system; at no time was employee safety at issue. We worked closely with OSHA, implemented every additional safety related documentation and information the agency required, and OSHA accepted our abatement plan, and closed this issue. We have not had a problem since.”

Businesses in abutting buildings to the PCI Synthesis plant on 9 Opportunity Way have been ordered closed, but Bradbury said there is no immediate health threat to the public connected to the explosions.

On its website, PCI Synthesis said it employs more than 120 people and described itself as the "largest small molecule drug substance manufacturer in New England.” The company produces chemicals for use by the pharmaceutical industry, according to its website.


The Newburyport facility covers 75,000 square feet and includes 22 glass and stainless steel chemical reactors. In addition to the Newburyport plant, the company operates a research facility in Devens.

Roofing is peeled back above PCI Synthesis.Blake Nissen/Globe Staff
A sign in front of PCI Synthesis.Blake Nissen/For the Boston Globe

Joanne Rathe and Travis Andersen of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

John R. Ellement can be reached at Follow him @JREbosglobe.