Bayer CropScience officials repeatedly refused to give local emergency responders details about last week's explosion and fire, according to recordings of phone calls between the company's Institute plant and Kanawha County's Metro 911 Center.
Plant officials told dispatchers that there was an "emergency" in progress, but said the company instructed them not to provide more details. For several hours, plant officials would not say what had happened or where in the plant the incident had occurred, the recordings show.
"Well, I can't give out any information, like I say, we'll contact you with the, with the proper information," a plant gate worker who identified himself only as Steve told a 911 dispatcher.
That comment came when emergency responders called the plant at 10:39 p.m., about 14 minutes after Bayer said the explosion occurred on Aug. 28.
One worker, Barry Withrow, a 45-year-old father of two from Cross Lanes, was killed. A second plant worker was seriously injured. Thousands of area residents were advised to take shelter in their homes because of possible fumes from the fire.
Dale Petry, Kanawha County's emergency director, said that local responders weren't sure what to do, because Bayer gave them precious little information for several hours after the explosion.
"We didn't know what to do," Petry said. "We couldn't get anything out of them. We want to protect the community, and we need more information to do that."
Bayer officials did not return repeated phone calls for this story. Late Thursday afternoon, the company issued a prepared statement that said it "shared all available information with Metro 911 as that information became available over the course of the incident."
"The transcripts of the calls to Metro 911 which were released today represent only a portion of the communication between Bayer CropScience and emergency response officials during this event," the statement said.
During the first 911 call last week, the dispatcher asked what had occurred, and the plant worker said, "Well, I haven't got instructions as to what to tell everybody yet."
"We just have an emergency alarm in progress right now," the plant worker said. "And we'll contact you as soon as I get the information."
Three minutes later, the Metro dispatcher called back at about the same time that a plant worker picked up the phone to call 911. The worker said Bayer needed an ambulance immediately for a burn victim.
Again, the dispatcher asked for more information. "Well, I can't give out any information until I get my information," the plant worker responded.
About a half-hour later, Bayer officials called 911 again with an update.
"We have an emergency at [the] Bayer CropScience plant, and the only information I can give you is that ... you might want to alert the community," the Bayer official said in that 11:15 p.m. call. "My supervisor informed me to tell you to alert the community that there is an emergency at the plant right now."
The dispatcher asked for more information, and specifically asked if the explosion had occurred in the unit that produces the pesticide Larvin.
"I'm only allowed to tell you that we have an emergency in the plant," the Bayer worker said.
About 20 minutes later, at 11:35 p.m., frustrated emergency officials issued a shelter-in-place advisory for South Charleston, Dunbar, Nitro, St. Albans and Institute.
Over the next 1 1/2 hours, Bayer officials called the Metro 911 center four more times. In each call, plant workers reported only that there had been an emergency, that plant teams were responding to that emergency, and that they would call back with an update.
Sometime around 1 a.m., county officials were given more details about where the explosion occurred and what chemicals might have been released from the plant.
Bayer officials called Metro 911 four more times between 1:30 a.m. and 6 a.m. Each time, plant workers repeated that, "We just wanted to keep you informed that our emergency team is still responding to our emergency."
During a community meeting in Institute Thursday night, longtime local emergency official Mark Wolford blasted Bayer, saying that the company's in-place emergency team had simply ignored requests by local officials for information during the event.
"We have to have adequate, thorough and timely information to make decisions," Wolford said. "We didn't get it."
But Institute Volunteer Fire Department Chief Andre Higginbotham said that he was at the plant gate during the incident and was receiving regular updates from Bayer's emergency team.
Higginbotham, who is a Bayer employee, said that it was his decision not to issue an earlier shelter-in-place advisory to residents. Under the county's emergency plan, Higginbotham was the on-scene local, non-plant incident commander.
"I felt like at that time it was safe," Higginbotham said. "We were constantly relaying information back and forth with each other."
Federal records released Thursday showed that Bayer did not report the incident to the National Response Center - the clearinghouse for reporting hazardous-materials accidents to the government - until 12:37 a.m., more than two hours after the explosion.
The report indicated "a release of material due to a fire and explosion in the water deluge system."
The National Response Center, run by the Coast Guard for other federal agencies, received two other reports about the Bayer incident. Both came in before Bayer's own report.
At 11:15 p.m., Institute native Catherine Davis called the NRC after hearing about the explosion from her mother, who still lives in Institute.
"This happens all the time," said Davis, who now lives in Arizona. "They never tell anyone.
"We'd go outside, and some crazy flames would be shooting up or we'd smell something and we'd call the plant and they'd say that nothing happened," Davis said. "But then, three hours later, you hear the emergency broadcast."
And at 11:34 p.m., Ryan Raner of Vancouver, Wash., called the NRC after hearing about it from "close companions" in the Institute area, according to the NRC report of Raner's call.
Here are some excerpts from the transcripts of calls between Bayer CropScience and Metro 911 about last week's chemical explosion and fire, which occurred at about 10:25 p.m. Aug. 28:
Call from Metro 911 to Bayer plant, 10:39 p.m.
Metro: Hey, this is Metro 9-1-1, what do we have? Do you know?
Bayer CropScience: Uh, well, I havenít got instructions as to what to tell everybody yet.
Call from Bayer plant to Metro 911, 11:15 p.m.
Metro: OK, just real quick, we had reports that [the explosion] was in the Larvin unit, are you able to confirm or deny that?
Bayer: No, thatís all. Iím only allowed to tell you that we have an emergency at the plant.
On the Web: Listen to more calls between Bayer officials and county 911 dispatchers on the night of the explosion.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 348-1702.
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