Second victim dies after Rubbertown plant explosions

Steve Nichols (source: family photo)
Steve Nichols (source: family photo)

Posted by Mike Dever - email

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - A second person died Tuesday after two explosions and a fire at a chemical plant Monday in Louisville's Rubbertown neighborhood. Two other victims were hospitalized and later released.

He has been identified as 56-year-old Jorge Medina of Jenlee Lane in Louisville, but family and friends tell us he went by "Louie."

Deputy Coroner Jack Arnold says Medina died from third degree burns to 90 percent of his body.

Funeral services for Medina will be held by Hathaway-Clark.

Fifty-nine-year-old Steve Nichols of Charlestown, Indiana died around 6:45 p.m. on March 21 at University Hospital, less than two hours after the first explosion ripped through the plant sometime after 5 p.m.

Deputy Coroner Sam Weakley says Nichols died from injuries consistent with an explosive blast, including second and third degree burns to 65 to 70 percent of his body.

No word yet on funeral arrangements for Nichols, but his family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, expressions of sympathy be made in the form of donations to Kosair Children's Hospital.

Medina was one of three people who were taken to University Hospital, where he died from his injuries early Tuesday.

The other two were treated and released.

Crews were called to the Carbide Industries plant at 4400 Bells Lane around 5:40 p.m. Monday on a report of an explosion. Once on the scene, fire commanders declared the incident a Level 2 HazMat - one step down from the most serious hazardous material incident level. Firefighters say the chemical involved was calcium carbide.

Although an all-clear was given late Monday, a second explosion rocked the plant around 11 p.m. Monday, and firefighters say that explosion was sparked by a different kind of chemical.

"It was mineral oil," said Jody Meiman, the assistant fire chief at Lake Dreamland Fire Department. "That did burn itself out through the night."

Firefighters cannot use water to fight the flames.

"We were able to get into the area somewhat close with some dry powder extinguisher," Meiman  We were able to get in there, and it was effective in some areas, but not effective in others. Again, the fire is starting to diminish quite significantly inside the building compared to what it was during the night."

Fire crews from 17 departments remained on the scene Tuesday, fighting small pockets of flames still burning inside the plant. Firefighters and officials from Carbide Industries have stressed that there was never any danger to people in neighborhoods near the plant, despite earlier warnings to the contrary.

John Dant, a spokesman for Carbide Industries, said the men who died had a long history with the company, calling them "long-term employees and good friends."

At a news conference Tuesday morning, MetroSafe Executive Director Doug Hamilton said officials "erred on the side of caution" in issuing the warning.

"The difficult part, I think, sometimes, is that we have press conferences within minutes of something - or hours - to try to learn the details of something that I won't learn until later," Hamilton said. "As I understand, it took a few minutes for us to move all of the resources that were associated with this event to a common communications channel."

Hamilton says that's when he became aware that there had been a miscommunication when an LMPD officer issued a shelter-in-place alert for nearby residents and businesses.

Mayor Greg Fischer offered his condolences to the families of the injured and dead.

"It is a tragedy for our entire community and southern Indiana," Fischer said.

Fischer told reporters that we live in an age "when everyone wants to know everything instantly," and that the technology is not yet in place to make that happen.

Fischer did acknowledge that current systems in place did not work as well as it should have. "The on-call is supposed to be implemented within 30 minutes. It did not happen.

He promised to work with those involved to "make sure there is a failsafe system."

Kentucky's Office of Occupational Health Compliance had conducted made three inspections at Carbide Industries over the last 10 years. They did not issue any citations, but there was one accident at the plant in 2007 when an employee was hospitalized with burns.

In 2006, there was a release of hydrochloric acid.

The city is now going to take over the hotline notification system, and will look into upgrading the public notification system with new technology.

Inspectors were scheduled to visit the plant Tuesday to interview employees and survey the damage.

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