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Hundreds mourn at service for 10 killed in sugar refinery explosion in Ga.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

SAVANNAH, Ga. -- Hardhats were hung in the centers of 10 wreaths of white carnations at a memorial service Saturday, one for each of the Imperial Sugar workers killed in the explosion at the company's nearby refinery.

More than 700 employees of the refinery in Port Wentworth, plus relatives and friends of the victims of the Feb. 7 blast, gathered at the Savannah Civic Center.

"You can ask anybody in Savannah or in the community around Port Wentworth; it definitely affects everybody," Richard Ussery, who has worked in the refinery for 17 years, said as he hugged and greeted friends leaving the memorial.

For Antonio Washington, who drives a forklift in the refinery warehouse, it was a chance to say goodbye to two friends he last saw the night of the explosion. He broke a toe when the blast hurled him off his forklift.

"I'd like to remember everybody like they were," said Washington, who couldn't bring himself to attend either man's funeral. "I think about them every day."

The memorial service came a day after the toll climbed to 10 with the death of an employee who was severely burned.

That worker's name has not been released, but the other victims were Truitt Byers, 54, of Savannah; Early Quarterman, 55, of Savannah; Byron Singleton, 26, of Ellabell, Ga.; Shelathia Harvey, 31, of Hinesville, Ga.; Mike Williams, 55, of Savannah; and Michael Kelly Fields, 40, of Rincon, Ga.

"They were men of faith, they were good sons, they were loving husbands and caring fathers," said John Sheptor, president and chief executive officer of Imperial Sugar. "We will miss you and we will remember you for the rest of our lives."

Sheptor praised the firefighters, paramedics and police who swarmed to the 90-year-old refinery, which burned for a week after the explosion.

He also singled out several refinery employees for praise. Sheptor said two of them were brothers who rushed back into a burning building to save an uncle, and two other employees who scrambled to shut off a large boiler operating dangerously close to the flames and the firefighters working to extinguish it.

Shutting down the boiler potentially saved "hundreds of lives -- all of our emergency response personnel, the injured and many of our employees who were gathered just at the foot of that boiler," Sheptor said

The company said those workers wished to remain anonymous.

Investigators say the explosion was fueled by airborne sugar dust, but they have not yet determined what ignited the dust.

Thirteen burn victims remain in critical condition at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital in Augusta. Two others are in serious condition there.

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