[cifnmedia] Illiopolis recovers from a plastics plant explosion

  • From: Sean & Kimberly Aaron <cifn@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: CIFN LIST <cifnmedia@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sun, 25 Apr 2004 10:56:12 -0700 (PDT)

‘Total shock’ 
Illiopolis recovers from a plastics plant explosion 


ILLIOPOLIS - Firefighters and rescue personnel lined up in a somber stance amid 
a light rain Saturday afternoon to block onlookers from seeing two Formosa 
Plastics workers whose bodies were removed from the burning warehouse and 
brought to the staging area for decontamination.
The two were among the four confirmed dead as a result of an explosion at the 
plant late Friday. They were Joseph Machalek, 50, of Decatur, whose was the 
first body to be recovered, Larry Graves, 47, of Decatur and Glenn Lyman, 49, 
of Cornland, whose bodies were brought out Saturday afternoon, and Linda 
Hancock, 56, of Decatur, whose was the last body to be recovered.

Two others, Randy Hancock and Bradford Bradshaw, both of Decatur, were listed 
in critical condition Saturday at Memorial Medical Center.

Chris Havener of Decatur was listed as serious and Dan Lyons of Riverton was 
listed in fair condition at Memorial. Bob Foster was discharged Saturday from 
St. Mary's Hospital in Decatur.

Randy and Linda Hancock were husband and wife. They were among 18 workers in 
the plant Friday night. Six were able to walk out on their own after the 
explosion. Others were treated at area hospitals and apparently released, 
according to authorities.

Sangamon County Sheriff Neil Williamson said the explosion happened as 
employees were mixing vinyl chloride and vinyl acetate to make what he 
described as "pellets" but what employees described as "resin" that is used to 
make PVC pipe.

"Somewhere between the powder and the pellet form, the explosion happened," 
Williamson said. "We still don't know what caused it. It's under investigation."

He said there have been conflicting accounts from witnesses. Some say they 
heard or felt the explosion and then the power went out, but others say the 
power went out before the main explosion, which was followed by several smaller 

A man who works at the plant who was near the staging area Saturday afternoon 
said that if the power was cut during the process of mixing the two chemicals, 
it could have potentially sparked the explosion.

"It's like mixing a cake," said the long-time employee. "You have the 
ingredients and you put it into a big blender. If (the blender) stops or stops 
moving at a certain speed, it could have a violent reaction."

But Natalie Hemmer, spokeswoman for Illinois Power, the company that supplies 
power to the plant, Illiopolis and the area around it, said she thinks the 
power went off as a result of the explosion but that there was a delay in the 
boom heard afterward. 

"I think there might be some confusion as to when they actually felt it and 
when it actually occurred," she said, adding that the jolt of the explosion may 
have been delayed, but that it was the explosion that caused the power to go 

"I live about a mile and a half south of there, and I was watching TV when the 
TV went out. Then we heard the big bang, it was like heavy thunder that shakes 
your house."

Power was restored by Saturday morning to the area.

When the explosion occurred, law enforcement authorities evacuated Illiopolis 
and the area within a 1-mile radius of the plant for fear that toxic fumes may 
have been released from the manufacturing plant. Many in surrounding 
communities of Mechanicsburg, Niantic and Mount Auburn also were evacuated for 
at least part of the night.

But Williamson said air testing of the area showed the plume of fire and smoke 
that arose from the 10:40 p.m. explosion at the plastics plant was not harmful.

"We're pretty sure at this point that there's nothing to worry about," he said.

The Illinois Department of Public Health, the Illinois Emergency Management 
Agency, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the Illinois Department 
of Transportation, the Illinois State Police; the Sangamon County sheriff's 
office, emergency services and disaster agency, coroner's office and the rescue 
squad; 15 volunteer fire departments, the Springfield Fire Department and the 
American Red Cross were among agencies involved in the coordinated efforts of 
Friday and Saturday.

"We just saw this in action in Utica (where tornadoes were earlier last week) 
and with this shows that the mutual aid system in Illinois is an organized way 
to get the extra resources to the town that it needed. We've had great 
responses from everyone," said Patty Thompson, spokesperson for the state's 
emergency operations center.

Rob Thibault, a corporate spokesman for Formosa, said it is too soon to say 
whether the company will rebuild the plant, which was 60 percent to 76 percent 
destroyed. The blaze continued to burn throughout Saturday.

The primary concern, he added, "is, of course, the staff, the people injured 
and their families."

"All of us at Formosa want to express our deepest and most profound condolences 
to the families of our co-workers and most cases, dear friends, who were killed 
in the explosion," Thibault said. "Those injured and their families are also in 
our thoughts and prayers. And, of course, we hope for a quick and full 

Formosa Plastics Corp. USA, based in Livingston, N.J., has owned the plant, 
formerly Borden Chemical, since 2002. The company is a major supplier of 
plastics used in vinyl flooring, traffic cones, carpet backing and other 

Officials from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board are 
expected to review the incident.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich issued a press release extending condolences to those who 
lost family members in the tragedy. He also commended "courageous first 
responders'' including the Sangamon County sheriff's office, according to the 

The community of Illiopolis, population just less than 1,000, was hard hit by 
the tragedy, which sent residents fleeing from their homes overnight. At the 
outskirts of the community, visitors are welcomed by a sign that reads: "The 
small town with a big heart."

"It's devastating," said Patty Johnson, whose family has owned Johnson's Food 
Center in Illiopolis since 1970. She was at the store, which is near the 
command center, Saturday just hours after being allowed to come back into town.

"There's total shock. Oh my gosh. The plant contributes a lot to this town. 
There's probably about 150 employees.

"There's still a lot of people in a state of shock."

Allan Brickey, mayor of Illiopolis, said the impact of the explosion is likely 
to be felt for a long time because even if only 20 or 30 of the employees who 
worked there were from Illiopolis, it still has a huge effect.

"In a large community, 20 to 30 people is not a large amount, but in a small 
community, they're very important," he said.

He said his emotions have been out of control.

"I've been going through the whole night and day happy because my son-in-law 
works there and he wasn't working last night and feeling guilty because of the 
others who lost their lives."

Sarah Antonacci can be reached at 788-1529 or sarah.antonacci@xxxxxxxxx

Sean A. Aaron (CIFN*1)
Central Illinois Fire Network

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