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Blast rocks sugar refinery; one missing

Huge storage silos lay crumbled on the ground and sugar was scattered up to a mile away Sunday after an explosion described as a ball of blue flames ripped through a major sugar refinery.

One person was missing and 15 others were injured, one critically.

The blast followed a bolt of lightning, one witness said. Company officials said sugar dust might have been ignited, though the cause of the blast was unknown.

"I saw the factory, (and) it was just as horrible as I had imagined," president Tom Chandler said Sunday. "We have a major disaster on our hands."

Some 150 people work at the Western Sugar Co. plant but only 31 were in the plant when the explosion occurred late Saturday.

"We are counting our blessings, it could have been much worse," said Mayor Mark Harris.

In addition, those workers at the plant apparently were just returning from a break, plant manager Owen Palm said.

Officials said Sunday that all employees had been laid off, adding that they hoped it would be temporary and that the plant could reopen in 60 days. Union officials set up a crisis intervention center.

Officials think the missing person, Gene Juergens, is trapped inside the factory, but unstable structures forced a suspension of search and recovery attempts.

The explosion leveled seven of eight silos at the plant and scattered plywood and sugar up to a mile away around this city of 14,100 people, in extreme western Nebraska just 20 miles from the Wyoming state line.

An eighth silo leaned dangerously, held up by the sugar it still contained.

Plant offices are open to the street, their front walls blown away, but Harris said some parts of the plant did not appear heavily damaged. Damage was estimated at more than $10-million.

The Scottsbluff plant is one of six run by Western Sugar that processes sugar beets into refined sugar and molasses and turns the beet pulp into pellets used as cattle feed. It is Western Sugar's largest plant for packaging and shipping its white, brown and powdered sugars.