Explosion Rocks Conway Plant, Area Evacuated

January 6, 2004 - Posted at 1:44 p.m. CDT

CONWAY, AR - Explosions rocked a chemical plant in Conway this morning, sending at least two people to Central Arkansas hospitals.

The blasts caused a fire at Detco Industries, which is sending a dark plume of smoke into the air that could be seen as far away as Little Rock.

Emergency workers have evacuated an elementary school, a daycare center and nearby businesses, including Kimberly Clark, which employs 540, and Acxiom.

Conway Fire Chief Bart Castleberry says that it appears two employees were injured in the blasts, one critically.  The chief said that the wind is keeping the fires at the plant contained to two structures.

Conway Police Lieutenant Chip Stokes said there were early reports of burns, but he was not sure of their status.

The explosions occured about 11 this morning on the city's south side, near an airport that was shut down after the initial blast.

The state Emergency Management Department said Detco Industries makes chemicals for use in industrial maintenance operations and has hydrofluoric acid, sulfuric acid and methanol on the premises.

The department said it did not know which chemicals were involved in the fire.

Witnesses said that, about an hour after an initial explosion, about five or six more blasts could be heard.

John Patton, a spokesman for Conway Regional Medical Center, said one of the injured was taken to Baptist Medical Center in Little Rock and the other was going to Little Rock's Arkansas Children's Hospital, which has the state's only burn unit, though Patton did not disclose the nature of the injuries.

Emergency workers evacuated buildings within a half-mile, including an elementary school, a day-care center and a Kimberly Clark paper factory that employs 540.  Students were taken to schools elsewhere in the city of 46,000.

Also evacuated was an adult education center operated by the Conway School District and the Oakwood Village mobile home park near the plant.

Stokes said there were a number of unknown chemicals in the Detco building and that emergency workers were concerned about the possibility of another explosion.  Another dozen or so plants are nearby.

The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department said it has closed an Interstate 40 exit south of the city because all of the roads leading from the exit were in the evacuation zone.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)