Las Vegas Sun

October 20, 2019

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Cedar City explosion kills one, brings back memories of PEPCON blast

CEDAR CITY, Utah -- A 70-foot-high chemical explosion at the Western Electrochemical Co. that killed one worker and critically injured another probably started from a spark in a clogged dust collector, officials said.

Daniel Baldeck, 48, of Cedar City was killed in the 8:54 a.m. Wednesday blast. Ron Meachum, 44, was burned over 50 percent of his body and was in critical condition today at the University of Utah Medical Center's Intermountain Burn Unit in Salt Lake City.

Two other employees suffered minor injuries, said Cedar City Fire Department Chief Clint Neilsen.

The explosion and "fast fire" were caused from either "a spark or static electricity in the ammonium perchlorate," Neilsen said.

Ammonium perchlorate is a chemical used by NASA in fuel to propel the space shuttle. Neilsen, who said NASA officials may be assisting in the accident investigation, "because they have a stake in it," said the blast shot up about 70 feet. The building was damaged but not destroyed.

"I believe it was a fluke, I really do," Neilsen said. "The Henderson incident is what we want to avoid. They have a lot of safety built into this plant. We're trained for this."

The Henderson incident was the May 4, 1988, explosions that killed two, injured 350 and destroyed the Pacific Engineering & Production Co. of Nevada plant near Henderson.

The Cedar City plant, owned by American Pacific Corp. in Las Vegas -- the same company that owned PEPCON, employs about 150 people.

Neilsen, who saw the damage near Henderson, said, "This is nothing compared to that. Nothing."

Baldeck, a maintenance supervisor, was one of the workers who transferred from PEPCON to WECCO in 1989, when the company built a $70 million facility in southern Utah.

Baldeck and Meachum were working in a "dust-collecting area in the external part of the building," said firefighter Paul Irons. He said he pulled Baldeck's body from the debris. The other two injured workers were outside the building when the blast occurred.

"(Baldeck) looked like he died from the explosion, not the fire," Irons said.

The plant sits behind the Wassage Mountains' Three Peaks, about 15 miles northwest of Cedar City and "away from people," Neilsen said. Cattle roam nearby.

"That's why it's where it's at," he said. "They want to avoid any kind of problem. It didn't tear the building apart. It didn't tear houses apart."

Neilsen said his response time to the accident "was pretty fast. I ran 115 miles per hour all the way out." Twenty-two firefighters followed.

Alan Wade and a Utah Highway Patrol officer had to drive a half a mile away before they could get out from under the cloud of smoke.

Wade, supervisor at the Iron County Solid Waste Landfill, about a mile from WECCO, was standing near the road when the blast hit. Wade disposes nonhazardous waste for WECCO. The landfill sits a mile from the plant's main gate on Iron Springs Road.

"We could see the smoke," he said. "The ammonium perchlorate just blew up."

He jumped in his truck and headed for the plant. That's when he said he saw the Utah Highway Patrol trooper.

"I told him to get out of the smoke," Wade said. "It blew away pretty fast. The way the wind was blowing, there really wasn't that much danger to people. It would be hard to create an explosion like there was in Henderson."

Wade, who attended training for hazardous waste identification at WECCO just the day before, said the plant is designed so that only a few people are allowed in the area of the ammonium perchlorate "at any given time in case it blows."

Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson, president and chief executive officer of American Pacific, said in a prepared statement: "The incident may have occurred as employees were attempting to clear a plugged dust collector. The cause of the obstruction is the matter of intense focus and investigation."

Production of the chemical "was not interrupted," Gibson said. "(But) that does not detract from the tragic loss of a human life and the pain endured by those who were injured."

Two buildings at the plant house the production of ammonium perchlorate.

The plant, which produces products for space flight and defense, automotive airbags and fire extinguishers, was shut down until 1 p.m. The building where the blast occurred will remain down for about two weeks, Neilsen said.

Lisa Worthen, who lives two miles from the plant with her 11-year-old son, felt and heard the blast.

"I told my son, 'Don't go outside. Don't breathe the air."

Neighbors were evacuated for a short time until the smoke dissipated, she said.