NEWBURYPORT — A fiery explosion tore through a pharmaceutical chemical factory with a history of safety violations Thursday morning, blowing a large industrial vat through the roof and into a parking lot some 30 feet away and killing one worker, officials said.
The body of a male worker was found at 5:25 p.m. from the PCI Synthesis plant, Acting Fire Chief Stephen H. Bradbury III said.
The man was identified as Jack O’Keefe, 62, of Methuen, Essex District Attorney Paul F. Tucker’s office said late Thursday night.
His body was removed from the facility and turned over to the state medical examiner’s office, a fire department spokesman said shortly before 9:30 p.m.
Tucker’s office, which has jurisdiction over unattended deaths, will investigate, the spokesman said.
The employee was one of five people inside the plant in an industrial park when the blast occurred around 12:45 a.m., officials said. It marked the third time in as many years an explosion or fire had occurred at the facility, which workplace safety and environmental regulators have cited for infractions on repeated occasions.
The factory was so badly damaged in the explosion and heavy fire that firefighters could not safely reach the spot where the worker was last seen, officials said.
“It’s devastation. Just devastation. One of the [manufacturing] engines that they use in the plant was completely blown right out of the building,” said Mayor Sean R. Reardon, who toured the scene of the explosion. “The main part where the explosion happened is just completely caved in.”
Reardon said officials’ “thoughts and prayers” are with the worker’s family.
“Luckily, four were able to get out,” he said. The four employees were taken to Anna Jacques Hospital and released, officials said.
Edward Power, 75, who has lived nearby for 38 years, said the blast was “so strong, the house shook.”
“The lights flickered too,” Power said. “It only lasted about a half a second, but it felt like an earthquake.”
Air quality meters set up along the perimeter of the explosion showed no hazards as of 6 p.m., officials said.
The factory is owned and operated by PCI Synthesis/Seqens, a multinational company based in France that is involved in the production of generic drugs typically found in medicine cabinets, such as over-the-counter painkillers and antihistamines, according to the company’s website. Its New England operations are headquartered in Newburyport and it also has a research and development laboratory in Devens.
In a statement Thursday night, Seqens confirmed the worker’s death.
“We are deeply saddened to report that a long time member of our PCI family died during the accident. The entire group and its employees are extremely shocked by this accident. At this tragic moment, all our thoughts and prayers are with our friend and colleague and his family during this difficult time,” the statement said.
“The safety of our employees has always been, and continues to be, our top priority. We strive to follow best practices and regulatory guidelines, and have implemented safety protocols and procedures to prevent incidents like this from occurring” the statement said.
In a statement, Governor Maura Healey called the explosion “deeply concerning.”
”'We are praying for the safety of the workers and the heroic first responders who are on the scene,” said Healey, who has family roots in Newburyport. “The state is prepared to assist in investigating what happened and how to ensure safety going forward.”
In a joint statement, Senators Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren, and Representative Seth Moulton, whose district includes Newburyport, said they have sent a letter to the Seqens North America, the facility’s owner, “demanding answers about the explosion and the facility’s history of serious and repeated safety violations.”
Today's chemical explosion in Newburyport is devastating. This disaster is the facility's third accident since 2020. We can’t keep excusing companies' flagrant disregard for worker safety. I'll be calling on PCI Synthesis and federal regulators to explain what happened.— Ed Markey (@SenMarkey) May 4, 2023
The explosion came less than two years after a hazmat emergency was declared at the facility when chemicals started burning, sending heavy smoke from the roof vents, fire officials said at the time. The situation was under control within 20 minutes, partly due to a working sprinkler system inside the building, the department said.
Reardon said the city will order the entire plant shut down until investigators determine what went wrong this time. While the city allowed the company to reopen after the 2020 incident after an extensive inquiry, the latest explosion may mean the plant needs to close, he said.
“It’s having a huge effect on the area. These are difficult conversations, but the safety of our residents and our firefighters have to come first,” he said. “This is the third one in three years and I think we need to be really thoughtful about how we approach this again.”
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration sent investigators to the scene, a spokesman said Thursday. OSHA inspected the facility in 2019, 2020, and 2021 and found multiple violations of workplace safety rules during each inspection, according to agency records.
After the 2020 explosion, federal inspectors cited the company for five violations, including four that were deemed “serious” and involved the “process safety management of highly hazardous chemicals,” according to OSHA records. The agency fined the company $53,436, which after negotiations was lowered to $28,000.
After the June 2021 fire, OSHA cited the company for two violations, including one involving “flammable liquids” that was considered serious. The second violation was for “hazardous waste operations and emergency response.” The company was fined $18,023, which was later lowered to $8,000.
Reporters were kept at a distance from the plant. But Senator Bruce Tarr, who represents Newburyport, said the scene Thursday afternoon was somber.
The ground was littered with pieces of yellowing fire suppression foam, and the air smelled of chemicals, he said. Crews with rescue dogs were sifting through the rubble.
”It’s still early on in this process, and all of us are trying to understand what happened here,” Tarr said. “An explosion of this magnitude causes a lot of concern, and we need to work hard to understand how we can prevent it from happening again.”
State Representative Dawn Shand, who lives in Newburyport, said she woke to “a profoundly sad morning.”
“My thoughts are with the families of workers injured on a night shift,” she said.
The tragedy brings back difficult memories of the Merrimack Valley explosions and gas-fueled fires that rocked Andover, North Andover, and Lawrence in 2018, she said.
“How can something so tragic be avoided?” Shand said. “How did a plant with so many violations have this happen?”
Justin Williams, 36, lives about a mile away from the plant and said he felt a sudden shockwave jolt his home at the time of the blast.
“It felt like a tree hit the house,” he said. Another resident who lives on Zabriskie Drive said, “My whole room kind of shook a little bit, and it was just a big boom.”
Williams said the number of incidents at the factory was troubling.
“My wife is pregnant, and they’re working with chemicals,” Williams said. “It’s concerning that they don’t have a strong safety record.”
Jonathan Saltzman and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff and correspondent Kate Armanini contributed to this report.
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