Volatile dust was blamed Friday in an explosion that leveled a sugar refinery, and crews pulled four bodies from tunnels beneath the mangled mass of metal and beams left by the blast.
At least four others known to be inside the plant during the explosion were still missing. Search efforts were slowed by the instability of what was left of the refinery, gutted by flames and wracked by the impact of the blast itself.
Families of the night-shift workers at the Imperial Sugar Co. plant gathered at the parish hall of a Catholic church across the street and wept as officials relayed grim news.
Investigators were unable to determine what sparked the overnight explosion as firefighters battled flames inside the vast refinery - a network of warehouses, silos and buildings eight stories tall connected by corridors of sheet metal.
Imperial president and CEO John Sheptor said sugar dust in a silo where refined sugar was stored before being packaged likely ignited like gunpowder. Sugar dust can become combustible if it's too dry and builds up a static electric charge.
The result was as devastating as a bomb. Floors inside the plant collapsed, flames spread throughout the refinery, metal girders buckled into twisted heaps and shredded sheet metal littered the wreckage. More than 30 employees were rushed to hospitals.
By Friday evening, the first deaths were confirmed as firefighters recovered four bodies. They were not immediately identified.
Employee Dana Claxton, 28, said the company promised its employees would continue to get paid. But that seemed little comfort.
"Everybody is upset about everybody. People haven't made it out of there yet," Claxton said.
"There's a million jobs out here, but there's not a million friends."
Lethal dust: More than 300 dust explosions have killed more than 120 workers in grain silos, sugar plants and food processing plants over the past three decades. Most are preventable by removing fine-grain dust as it builds up, experts say.
Big Sugar: Imperial Sugar markets some of the country's leading sugar brands, including Imperial and Dixie Crystals, and supplies sugar and sweetener products to industrial food manufacturers.