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Sugar flows at Domino

The Baltimore Sun

The familiar yellow and white bags of Domino sugar are once again rolling off the conveyor belts at the Key Highway plant, one week after an explosion blew out windows and rendered the powdered sugar mill a total loss.

There is more work to be done, with windows still being boarded up yesterday. But managers picked up mops and workers volunteered overtime to get production lines operating again in advance of the busy holiday baking season.

"It was a spectacular effort," refinery manager Stuart FitzGibbon said at a news conference yesterday at the Museum of Industry on Key Highway.

The trademark Domino sign gleamed orange-red atop the nine-story sugar plant and a white plume of smoke rose from its stacks, signaling it was back in business. But a number of windows on multiple floors remained gaping holes.

Investigators are still looking into what caused the explosion on the ninth floor and a fire on the sixth floor that appears to be unrelated.

They are paying close attention to the system that manufactures confectioners' sugar, which takes up floors 7, 8 and 9. Dust explosions are a risk in sugar manufacturing and authorities immediately suspected the dust collection system. The dust raised when sugar is moved from one place to another can be volatile if the right conditions exist.

Damage estimates are in the "tens of millions," FitzGibbon said.

About 175 of the plant's 400 workers were at the 85-year-old plant at the time but no one was seriously injured. Much of the process is automated, and only a few workers are needed to monitor the lines, FitzGibbon said, which prevented more casualties.

"I feared there was dead people," FitzGibbon said, recounting his first thoughts after the blast.

When Charles Benton heard the boom, his mind raced back 10 years to Nebraska, when a similar blast at a sugar plant killed one of his co-workers and injured numerous others and leveled a third of the building.

As he evacuated the building, Benton feared the worst.

"You know the effects of a dust explosion, but when you see it firsthand, it's amazing," he said.

Safety manager Lou Sorrentino was in South Carolina working on his laptop when he got an e-mail to call the plant "ASAP" and that it was "URGENT."

"When I saw it was in capital letters, I knew it was bad," he said.

Within a few hours of the 10 a.m. incident he was back at the plant, where he worked well past midnight.

The explosion left a mess of glass and metal inside the building, which workers immediately began sweeping up once the building was deemed structurally safe.

The company provided workers free meals and paid them overtime for staying past their shift.

Several workers said yesterday that they were surprised that they were able to recover so quickly. All of the inventory had to be dumped. Every machine had to be cleaned. The floors had to be scrubbed.

Normally, the noise from the machines and conveyor belts annoys workers, said Mark Folderauer, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers' Local 392. But not yesterday.

"There was a smile on their faces," he said. No workers will be furloughed, he said.

The plant, which is operated by American Sugar Refining Co., is once again pumping out granulated sugar, brown sugar and holiday specialty products but not confectioners' sugar. The powdered sugar mill's equipment must be totally replaced, Sorrentino said. Until then, other plants across the United States and Canada will pick up the slack.

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