Conn. power plant blast kills at least 5, injures 14

The Kleen Energy plant is seen Sunday in this aerial photo after an explosion in Middletown, Conn. (JESSICA HILL ~ Associated Press)

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. -- An explosion that sounded like a sonic boom blew out walls of an unfinished power plant and set off a fire during a test of natural gas lines Sunday, killing at least five workers and injuring a dozen or more.

The explosion at the Kleen Energy Systems plant in Middletown, about 20 miles south of Hartford, could be heard and felt for miles.

Deputy fire marshal Al Santostefano said Sunday night that no one was known to be missing amid the rubble of the damaged plant. Still, crews planned to spend all night going through debris in case there were any more victims. The cause of the gas explosion was unknown, and the investigation was to begin this morning, he said.

The explosion left huge pieces of metal that once encased the plant peeling off its sides. A large swath of the structure was blackened and surrounded by debris, but the building, its roof and its two smokestacks were still standing. Rescue crews had set up several tents alongside the site, which is a few miles from Wesleyan University.

The explosion happened around 11:15 a.m., Santostefano said. Mayor Sebastian Giuliano heard the blast.

"It felt almost like a sonic boom," Giuliano said at an evening news conference.

Santostefano said 50 to 60 people were in the area at the time of the explosion, and multiple contractors were working on the project, making it difficult to quickly account for everyone.

One of those killed was Raymond Dobratz, a 58-year-old plumber from Old Saybrook, said his son, Erik Dobratz, who called the elder man "a great dad."

The 620-megawatt plant, which was almost complete, is being built to produce energy primarily using natural gas.

Santostefano said workers for the construction company, O&G Industries, were purging the gas lines when the explosion occurred.

Officials had not released the conditions of the other injured people by Sunday evening, although they said at least a dozen people had injuries ranging from minor to very serious.

The thundering blast shook houses for miles.

Kleen Energy Systems LLC began construction on it in February 2008. It had signed a capacity deal with Connecticut Light and Power for the electricity produced by the plant, which was scheduled to be completed by mid-2010.

The company is run by president and former Middletown City Council member William Corvo. A message left at Corvo's home was not immediately returned. Calls to Gordon Holk, general manager of Power Plant Management Services, which has a contract to manage the plant, weren't immediately returned.

Energy Investors Funds, a private equity fund that indirectly owns a majority share in the power plant, said it is fully cooperating with authorities investigating the explosion. In a written statement, the company offered sympathy and concern and would release more information on the explosion as it becomes available.

Plants powered by natural gas are taking on a much larger role in generating electricity for the U.S. Gas emits about half the greenhouse gases of coal-fired plants and new technology has allowed natural gas companies to begin to unlock gas supplies that could total more than 100 years at current usage levels.

Natural gas is used to make about a fifth of the nation's electricity.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell visited the scene Sunday; she earlier called out a specialized search and rescue team to help firefighters. Rell announced late Sunday that the state had imposed a temporary no-fly zone for a three-mile radius around the site, which she said was to ensure that the safety of the search and rescue workers would not be jeopardized. The restrictions were put in place until Monday evening.

The state's Emergency Operations Center in Hartford also was activated, and the Department of Public Health was called to provide tents at the scene for shelter and medical triage.

Rell said the emergency teams were expected to work through the night and into Monday.

Daniel Horowitz, a spokesman with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, said the agency is mobilizing an investigation team from Colorado and hopes to have the workers on the scene Monday.

Safety board investigators have done extensive work on the issue of gas line purging since an explosion last year at a Slim Jim factory in North Carolina killed four people. They've identified other explosions caused by workers who were unsafely venting gas lines inside buildings.

The board voted last week to recommend that national and international code writers strengthen their guidelines to require outdoor venting of gas lines or an approved safety plan to do it indoors.

In February 2009, an explosion at a We Energies coal-fired power plant near Milwaukee burned six workers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is still investigating.

In the past few years, an explosion at a Dominion Virginia Power coal-fired plant in Massachusetts killed three workers in November 2007, while one worker and nine others were injured at an American Electric Power plant of the same type in Beverly, Ohio, in January 2007.

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