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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Explosion Rocks Pharmaceutical Plant In North Carolina

Aired January 29, 2003 - 14:35   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

MILES O'BRIEN: We're going to break away from the briefing for just a moment to give you a little bit of BREAKING NEWS. The facts are just trickling in to us right now, but essentially what we know is this.
There was an explosion at a pharmaceutical factory in Kinston, North Carolina. That is sort of halfway between the coast and Raleigh, North Carolina. We are told by the local authorities, as you look at these aerial pictures from one of our affiliates there. I'll try to get the name of it in a moment.

We are told by WRAL -- we're told, as you can see, very thick cloud of black smoke streaming out from this pharmaceutical explosion. We're told that there are multiple fatalities as a result of this. Unclear what caused the explosion. Some preliminary reports indicate that there might have been a plane involved in all this. We're still trying to track that down. Let's this not put a lot of credence in that just yet.

The pharmaceutical factory, West Pharmaceuticals located near the Kinston airport, for what that is worth. But as you can see, with firefighters there using a tower with spraying copious amounts of water on there and lots of flames showing, clearly a pharmaceutical factory is a place that has a lot of volatile chemicals which certainly could feed a fire for quite some time to come. Kinston, North Carolina, is the dateline. The pharmaceutical factory in flames. We're watching it very closely.

(INTERRUPTED BY LIVE EVENT)

O'BRIEN While Secretary Rumsfeld continues his briefing, clearly what you're seeing is a tremendous fire. Kinston, North Carolina, is the dateline. West Pharmaceuticals, specifically, the place. Our affiliate, WRAL offering us some excellent aerial pictures to give you a sense of this tremendous fire there. We're told by local authorities there are multiple fatalities as a result of this. With us on the line, right now, to give us more insight, shed more light on this, is Ralph Clark, the city manager in Kinston.

Mr. Clark, let's start from the beginning. When did you hear about this?

RALPH CLARK, KINSTON CITY MANAGER: About 20 till 2:00, our time, the activities began.

O'BRIEN How did you find out about it.

CLARK: Well, I found out through the police and fire and everything going out and getting the radio transmission from that.

O'BRIEN As we see in the helicopter shots, it's very near the airport. There was an earlier report that an airplane was involved. We're told by the FAA that is not so.

What do you know?

CLARK: I'm looking at the same shot you are. I'm looking at an aerial, and there have been rumors of, you know, of possible plane crashing into it. We have not confirmed that at this point. All we know, that it's a tremendous explosion. Did some damage. It blew some doors open a mile and a half away.

O'BRIEN Say that again.

Blew doors open a mile and a half away?

CLARK: Hold on a second. Let me get -- I get better information, I'm talking to police and fire. Hold on just a second.

O'BRIEN That's Ralph Clark, trying to get information. We'll allow him to do that as we look at close-ups from WRAL.

And what you're seeing is are remnants of the West Pharmaceutical plant. In the wider shot, in the upper part of the screen, you see there you see the runway at Kinston Airport there. No reason to believe anything there except to point that out to you. There was an early report of an airplane involved. We heard from the FAA there was not an airplane involved. But, in these cases, you get a lot of bad information in the early moments. Clearly, we're in the early moments of this.

Local authorities have given us some indication there are multiple fatalities and injuries in all of this. As you look at the steady stream of smoke. What you see there as well is a brush fire that appears to have taken hold off into the distance in the fields adjacent to the West Pharmaceutical factory there. Clearly, a pharmaceutical factory is a place, a toxic brew of chemicals that would feed a fire for quite some time to come. And clearly, this is something that would very likely -- there you can see what appears to be a triage set up there on the field there, as authorities there, rescue workers try to assess those who are injured. And perhaps in some cases who are worse off.

Mr. Clark, do you have some additional information for us yet.

CLARK: It appears it was not a plane. There was a plane in the area, but it does not appear a plane crashed into it. It was an internal explosion. There are still a number of people trapped in the plant. We're trying to get those out today -- right at this moment.

O'BRIEN Do we know how many people are trapped?

CLARK: Do not. You can see from your aerial photos, it's obvious that some of them are out. But it must not have been quite as bad as it could have been. O'BRIEN Mr. Clark, how many people work on there in an average day, do you know?

CLARK: I was told it was about 200 employed by the West company. Whether that's a single shift or whether that's three shifts, I don't have a confirmation on that.

O'BRIEN One of the larger employers in Kinston?

CLARK: Yes, sir.

O'BRIEN All right.

How big of a town is Kinston?

CLARK: Kinston is about 25,000 people.

O'BRIEN I assume this is taxing your ability to respond. All though I see a tremendous number of ambulances and fire authorities.

CLARK: Well, we have -- of course we called in additional personnel from police and fire from our area. And of course, it's in encompasses an entire county firefighting efforts.

O'BRIEN Now, we were told in a previous conversation with some of the authorities on the scene that there is a sense that there are multiple fatalities. Can you confirm that?

CLARK: I can't confirm that. You know, from looking at what you just saw, it would not be surprising.

O'BRIEN And have you heard from anybody on scene? Do you have any direct communication, for example, the person you were just talking to, were they on scene there?

CLARK: They were on the scene and saying it was more than you can imagine. You can see the fire from the air and they said it's just a tremendous amount of fire they're trying to get out.

O'BRIEN Tremendous, thick, acrid black smoke. Is there any concern about the immediate surrounding areas? Are you thinking about evacuation?

CLARK: Some of the things have evacuated. There was an academy there that had a couple, 300 students. That's been evacuated. I think the rest will either evacuate itself. We won't require evacuation at this point.

O'BRIEN No evacuation required. I notice there was what appeared to be a brush fire that start the.

Do you know much about that?

CLARK: No, I don't.

All right, tell us, what do you know about what West manufactures at that particular plant.

CLARK: Hold on just a second.

O'BRIEN We have Ralph Clark on the line, the city manager of Kinston, North Carolina, a town of 25, 000 people. You're looking at live pictures from our affiliate, WRAL, responding to a tremendous fire there in the wake of an explosion. We are told, had nothing to do with an aircraft, some kind of an internal explosion. You saw several injuries there, right beside the sign for West Pharmaceutical. You look at firefighters trying to go through the building. Apparently people trapped inside. Numerous fatalities reported by local authorities, obviously numerous injuries.

Mr. Clark, did you get that information?

CLARK: They do searing stoppers and IV type.

O'BRIEN So plastics, that kind of thing?

CLARK: Yes, sire. Plastics.

O'BRIEN Not necessarily drugs themselves?

CLARK: No drugs.

O'BRIEN Modes of conveyance for drugs.

CLARK: That's correct.

O'BRIEN So plastics, certainly, a plastics plant, you could be in a situation where a fire would burn like we're seeing it, I guess.

CLARK: That's correct.

O'BRIEN All right, Mr. Clark, anything else you can tell us at this point.

CLARK: I'm not sure I can tell you much more, not being there. I'm about at the same disadvantage you are. I can look at pictures and get phone calls.

O'BRIEN All right, we're going to let you go then because you obviously have your hands full.

Ralph Clark, the city manager Kinston, North Carolina. Giving us a sense of what's going on right now. As we have been telling you, this is probably a little less than an hour old. We're talking about a fire that is clearly, at this juncture, out of control in Kinston, North Carolina. Water being poured on it being, but not doing much good from my view of it. Thick, acrid, black smoke billowing out at the West Pharmaceuticals Plant there.

We're told employees total about 200 there. Unclear how many would be there on any given shift. We're also told by authorities that there are reports of numerous fatalities. We can't be more -- give you more specificity than that. And also to tell you we saw, in one of the shots, as it pans to the left, beyond the fire trucks, what appears to be a staging area or triage set up for the rescue workers as they assess those who might be injured.

There is some concern that there are people trapped inside this structure right now. And we've seen a couple of shots of firefighters just walking across that roof in what is clearly got to be a very treacherous thing for them. Clearly, an act of bravery. You always saw in the earlier shot, the wider picture there, a long line of ambulances, so the response to neighboring communities to Kinston, which, after all, is not the biggest city in North Carolina has been obviously tremendous. And it appears they have enough people on the scene there to take care of those who might have been injured in this explosion.

No word on the cause of the explosion, although we can, at this point, rule out an aircraft even though, as we saw in the wider pictures, this particular pharmaceutical factory making syringes and the like is almost immediately adjacent to the Kinston airport. Unclear, then -- probably be quite some time before we know what the cause might be in all of this. Firefighters doing their best to put out hot spots there, as we lose that signal from WRAL. We're hoping to get some witnesses who have been in the scene and have heard some things and seen some things.

The person in the area there is Tom Seagrave, with us on the line right now.

Tom, can you hear me okay?

TOM SEAGRAVE: I can.

O'BRIEN What did you see and hear this afternoon.

SEAGRAVE: We felt an explosion in our facility, and then we were unclear what it was. And obviously, we ran out to see and you can see significant amount of smoke, black smoke, and fire, pretty heavy fire. That's really about it. That's as close as you can get.

O'BRIEN Tom, are you an employee of West?

SEAGRAVE: No, I'm not. I'm with Seagrave Aviation.

O'BRIEN Seagrave Aviation, which is at the airport nearby?

SEAGRAVE: That's correct.

O'BRIEN Did you hear an explosion then?

SEAGRAVE: Yes, I was in the offices and we felt the explosion and didn't -- unclear as to what had happened, the ceiling tiles in our building were blown out of place. And no significant damage, but we -- it was a very significant explosion.

O'BRIEN And at Seagrave Aviation, I assume there was some initial concern about an aircraft being involved. Did you immediately get that figured out? SEAGRAVE: Immediately.

O'BRIEN What do you know about this factory and who works there and how many people are there on a typical day?

SEAGRAVE: I do not know anything firsthand. What I have heard is there's approximately 100 people on the shift to 120. There were not that many people out front of the facility that looked like they were outside. So I don't have any idea if they were at full shift or whatever. The potential, I understand, was about 100 to 125.

O'BRIEN All right. That answer as question we had with Mr. Clark, city manager who indicated maybe 200 people total, but any given shift, we're looking in the neighborhood of 100.

I'm curious, Tom, what it -- that smoke smells like where you are right now.

SEAGRAVE: I understand that there is a rubber material over there that's on fire, and that's what is burning.

O'BRIEN So that thick, dark smoke is some sort of rubber product, you think?

SEAGRAVE: That's correct. We're evacuating people out of here.

O'BRIEN Really?

SEAGRAVE: We've got ambulances moving people out of here right now so I've got to go. But we've got to board people here to take to the burn center.

O'BRIEN All right. Well, Tom, you better get going. Thank you very much for taking time and be safe out there. Get your people safe. Ralph Clark, just a moment ago, the city manager, indicated there weren't evacuations being called for. Obviously, this is brand new information.

But given what you're seeing there with the nature of this fire and the thickness of that smoke, fed by, as Tom Seagrave put it, a rubber product, the prudent thing clearly to do is to evacuate people so Tom and his people will be getting out of there. Two-hundred and twenty-five people total work at this pharmaceutical plant. We're told about half that number would likely be there on this afternoon, on a typical afternoon.

Company is based in Pennsylvania, West Pharmaceuticals. And at this particular plant, we're told by people in Kinston, North Carolina, they produce syringes, and the like, not drugs themselves, but items which dispense drugs. Looking at these pictures, I go back to the statement that Ralph Clark made about the possibility that people might be trapped in there. And you have to have some great concern for anybody who might be inside or near that fire inside that building.

We're told by one of our reports that three people have made it to the hospital. We don't know the level of their injuries. There, you obviously see medivac helicopter arriving on the scene. Probably go to land near the sign where the injured have been put in place to be organized and transported to various hospitals all around the region.

All right. Let's go back to Seagrave Aviation. I told you we're near the airport. we talked to Tom Seagrave a moment ago. He told us an evacuation has begun, but Jack Lambert is there.

Jack, what did you see? What did you hear?

JACK LAMBERT, SEAGRAVE AVIATION: I heard a lot of blasts. I'm in a golf cart by the blast right now, and I'm looking at the helicopters land on the airport. There's a big explosion, as you heard. Right now, we've got helicopters landing right in front of us. It's just a mayhem here. We have fire departments from (UNINTELLIGIBLE) counties here. It's unbelievable.

O'BRIEN Jack, it's kind of broken up. You're obviously on a cell phone out there. You're telling us about how many helicopters and the response.

Can you give us a sense of the response?

LAMBERT: The response has been overwhelmed. At the airport, we have seven or eight helicopters here. You can hear one landing behind me right now. The response from all different counties is here. We're just getting great, tremendous support from all the areas around us.

O'BRIEN Give us a sense of what you heard and what you saw as this unfolded just a little while ago.

LAMBERT: OK. I wasn't at the airport when it unfolded. I heard a big blast, walked outside and saw the huge amounts of smoke developing right near the airport. And I was about two miles and heard the blast.

O'BRIEN Can you give us a sense, Jack, of what that smoke -- it looks very dense.

What does it smell like there?

LAMBERT: It smells like a bunch of rubber, and I'm hearing chemicals. I actually walked into the woods behind it, and helped some people out from the blast. Like I said, it blew the roof off a good 400 feet down the road, and it got all the woods on fire, but we're getting tremendous support from the area around here right now.

O'BRIEN What a tremendous explosion. Tell us about the people you helped out.

What was their condition? What did you do for them?

LAMBERT: The condition, they had multiple burns on their arms and back. We got them out, got them help, got them into the ambulances. It's unbelievable here, sir.

O'BRIEN Did they give you any sense of what went on in there? Did they have any sense of what might have caused it.

LAMBERT: I didn't have time. I was asking them if he they knew of anybody else we could help. Of course, we went into the building and got them and helped most of the people out. Multiple burns on the body, wasn't sure exactly what happened. He just said we heard a big blast, get us out of here.

O'BRIEN OK. And their condition in general, they were walking wounded.

LAMBERT: Wounded, kind of unsure of where they were. Really unsure what happened. They just knew they got burned and something happened.

O'BRIEN Did they indicate to you if they knew if any of their colleagues were still inside?

LAMBERT: Yes, they said there's more people inside, help them out, get them out.

O'BRIEN How close could you get to isn't it was it too hot to get anywhere near it.

LAMBERT: I was on the back side where the building -- the roof got blew off. I got about 200 yards and right now, I'm standing about 50 yards from the fire right now.

O'BRIEN What else do you see as you stand there?

LAMBERT: As I stand here, I'm seeing firefighters walk on top of the building. They're putting out the fire. I'm seeing ambulances set up. We have a line of ambulances waiting to get in to help people.

O'BRIEN So...

LAMBERT: And I got helicopters landing on the airport as we speak. Just multiple agencies here, fire, rescue, police, you know, hospitals. I can see a command post being set up right now, looks like a triage area. They're setting up to help the burn victims.

O'BRIEN Can you give us a sense, based on what you've seen. You seem to be a fairly good reporter there, Jack.

Can you give us a sense of how many injuries you've seen?

LAMBERT: Right now, I have seen about a dozen.

O'BRIEN OK.

LAMBERT: If not more. I know I've helped about six out right now...

O'BRIEN OK.

LAMBERT: ... Already.

O'BRIEN Have you had a chance to talk to the authorities there?

LAMBERT: No, I haven't. You know, I actually have my vehicle blocked off so I'm blocking traffic as we speak.

O'BRIEN Now, and this idea of evacuating some areas, we were talking to Tom Seagrave a minute ago, and he said there was a call for evacuation. Are you in harm's way right now?

LAMBERT: No sir, I'm not in harm's way. But what we set up, we set an evacuation route through the airport, where Seagrave Aviation is located at the Kinston Airport. And the helicopters are landing so the ambulances can get in and get these folks out of here as quickly as possible.

O'BRIEN Jack Lambert, great job of giving us a sense of what's going on there. Jack Lambert, with Seagrave Aviation, thank you and be safe.

Let's move along, another phone call, Craig Hill, the principal of a nearby school.

Craig, how close are you to the scene?

CRAIG HILL, PRINCIPAL, KINSTON HIGH SCHOOL: A quarter mile from the scene.

O'BRIEN What did you see and hear today?

HILL: Actually, I was in my office and we just -- I felt the boom, actually, heard the boom and felt it, the blast. And got up and walked outside and saw a white plume of smoke and immediately followed by a billowing black plume of smoke, and we immediately went in lockdown in our school here. And just waiting for response from emergency management and our police officers here in town.

O'BRIEN So, you're in lockdown now, nobody's told you to evacuate or budge the kids.

HILL: We're in a modified lockdown. The parents are here. We have some parents that are picking up students and signing those students out. We're not releasing our buses or student traffic at this time because of the number of emergency vehicles on the road and our locale is close to the hospital as well.

O'BRIEN So, parents who come can get their children?

HILL: Parents can come. We have them waiting in line and we'll be signing -- they'll be signing their children out one at a time. And well go get the students and release them to them.

O'BRIEN So there's no -- if I can ask you to turn town the volume of the TV because... HILL: I don't have a TV.

O'BRIEN Maybe that on our end. I apologize. Students there, just give us a sense of what the atmosphere is in the school.

HILL: Well, our students are in lockdown and we basically have turned our TVs off. And our students are in the classroom and we told the teachers to continue to teach and carry on as a normal day and all of our modes at this point in time are precautionary and we're in a holding pattern until further notification.

O'BRIEN And clearly, I was just told by the city manager, Ralph Clark, that this is one of the larger employers in this area.

HILL: Yes.

O'BRIEN Undoubtedly, there are students there who have parents who work there.

HILL: That's correct. That's correct.

O'BRIEN What are you doing for them?

HILL: At this point and time those students are in the classroom. We do know that the parents and families are meeting at the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) church. But until we have more notification from them, those students are still in the classroom and do not know what's happening at this point.

O'BRIEN Is there any sort of in-house counselling that you can offer them at this juncture.

HILL: Yes. We do have -- we have our counselors on hold. And we would have that in place right now. And we're just holding the students.

We're trying to get some official notification on what direction to go on that at this time. But we will be offering -- we are going to not going to turn them loose without notifying them. And then we've got to deal with that situation.

O'BRIEN: Given what I'm seeing there, it probably makes a lot of difference which direction your school is right now. Are you downwind of that site?

HILL: No, we don't appear to be. It seems like the smoke is kind of going a high northeast. And we're kind of directly east and a little south of the airport.

O'BRIEN: OK. So, you have no reason to believe that the school or you're in any peril whatsoever from that smoke?

HILL: No. I'm sure we would be notified. But we have, as a precautionary thing, turned our heating and air units off at this point in time.

O'BRIEN: I see. Tense afternoon there at Kinston High School.

CALLER: Excuse me just a moment. I have got a call from...

O'BRIEN: All right, well, I'm going to let you go, Craig Hill, the principal of the Kinston High School, who's got his hands full today, along with everybody else there in Kinston, North Carolina.

Let me just back up for those of you who are just tuning in. It was a tremendous explosion. You're seeing the remnants of it right now that rocked this small community of about 25,000. The location, the West Pharmaceuticals plant, which employs about 200 people, probably about 100 or so people.

As you look, by the way, I believe, at the high school, which is under lockdown right now -- can't say that for certain, but I believe that may be the case. In any case, the explosion and fire rocked this facility. Maybe that isn't the place, because that clearly is downwind. And Craig Hill was just telling us that they were in the other direction. So, that's probably another school. And we'll try to get you some more information on that. It appears that that school has been evacuated, from what I'm seeing there.

In any case, what we're hearing, as we piece together these witness reports, is this tremendous explosion lifted the roof off. It was felt for at least a mile around, maybe more, sent debris in many directions, and injured numerous people. We do not have a firm number on that yet. It's obviously a very fluid situation.

What you're seeing on the left side of your screen is the tarmac at nearby airport, where helicopters from literally all around North Carolina are coming in, medevac helicopters, in order to assist in transporting injured, in particular the burn patients, to regional hospitals that can take care of those patients. And that is being coordinated at a command post not too far away, where a triage effort is under way to assess those who are injured.

Somewhat ominously through all of this, we are told by the city manager that there might in fact be people trapped inside the building in one way or another. We don't have much more on that, except to tell you that that's what we've been told and that we do believe there have been numerous fatalities. Once again, beyond that, folks there have their hands full. They don't have time to give us those kinds of numbers.

The factory, West Pharmaceuticals, that's a big company. It's based up in Pennsylvania. This particular factory doesn't make drugs, per se. They make plastic items used to dispense drugs, like syringes and the like. We're told by some of the witnesses that the smell of this fire, that thick black smoke, smells like a rubbery smell. And the evacuation, which we heard about when we were speaking with one of the representatives from Segrave Aviation, apparently applies to those places which are downwind of this fire and that thick black smoke.

Clearly, that's a fire that is burning out of control, although we have seen the firefighters on the scene with tall ladders trying to pour some water on it. But it may be one of those situations that they can best hope to just contain and will probably have to burn itself out. It's hard to say how many plastic- or rubber-like would be in a factory of that size, but clearly enough to sustain a fire for quite some time.

Once again, left of your screen, that appears to be some kind of a military helicopter that's being used in conjunction with this medevac effort. One of the witnesses was telling me of approaching the facility through the woods and happening upon three or four injured people, who were dazed and confused, didn't really know where they were, didn't really know what had happened.

They were burned, but they were walking wounded, as is the term. He offered some assistance. They indicated to him that there might be many more colleagues inside that facility, also offered no real indication as to what might have been the cause. Left of your screen from WTVD is -- you look at the line of ambulances there along the highway there.

I believe that's Rau Street (ph) from looking at MapQuest. And on the corner there, where that sign was, you might have seen some of the injured there in what we believe to be sort of the triage location. To our right, from WRAL, another helicopter, you can see one of the ladder trucks doing its work.

We've seen some firefighters on that roof, amazingly, doing -- it's another day in the life of a firefighter. Most of us would call them heroes as they try to see if there's anybody trapped inside who can be helped, obviously putting themselves in great peril.

I was just told something about the stock exchange, is that correct? Trading on the stock exchange has been halted, apparently, because of all of this -- excuse me. I was getting fragmented information. Trading in West Pharmaceuticals stock on the New York Stock Exchange has been halted. You'll accept my apology there. Sometime we get some fragmented information.

Right of your screen, once again, there you see that area we've been telling you about, where the injured are being assessed. This is just about an hour old now and clearly is taxing the regional response, as firefighters, ambulances from all around the area, helicopters, attempt to deal with numerous injured, many fatalities at the West Pharmaceuticals plant there in Kinston, North Carolina.

There was an earlier report, you might recall, if you've been watching the whole time, of potentially an aircraft involved in this. It is right near the airport right. But we are told by everybody from the city manager to the FAA to a person who operates a fixed-based operation there at the airport, Segrave Aviation, that there was no aircraft involved in all of this, that this explosion was internal to the West Pharmaceuticals company there -- total employees there, about 225, that produce syringe plungers, I.V. supplies.

Their headquarters is in Lionville Pennsylvania. The corporation has not offered any immediate comment on this. Kinston, about -- a town of about 25,000 in east central North Carolina, sort of halfway between Raleigh and the coast of the Outer Banks there. It happened at 1:27 p.m. Eastern time, local time.

And, as we look there, we see that the fire is going to be one of those stubborn fires that is going to tax the firefighting effort for quite some time to come. The real issue now will be trying to rescue people, trying to take care of those who are injured, get them medevaced as quickly as possible to local hospitals.

As we told you a moment ago, on the stock exchange, West Pharmaceuticals is no longer being traded at the moment. It's fairly much more standard operating procedure. For example, in the wake of plane crashes, airline stocks, same drill.

Rhonda Schaffler, what do you have for us?

RHONDA SCHAFFLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Miles.

Well, that stock has been halted for trading here. And, basically, stocks are halted when you do have some of these major news events. The company just putting out guidance, saying, yes, it was its plant involved here. So it is letting investors know that it is indeed the company behind the plant here.

As far as when that stock might trade again, unclear. The news will have to still unfold here. It is a thinly traded stock, we should point out. And it continues to be halted, as investors, as others wait for more information on what happened in North Carolina -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Rhonda, sorry to put you on the spot, but do you know how big a corporation West is?

SCHAFFLER: I can tell you it's based in Pennsylvania.

As far as the size here, let me try to get some information for you quickly. I don't have numbers right in front of me, Miles. But I can tell you, as far as that stock trades, about 73,000 shares. That is very thin trading for a company. That's not a company that would be well enough known for others to trade, although the company offers all sorts of information.

It has packaging plastic components in the health care, consumer products industries. Its products include metal, plastic stoppers, medical device components. So, it looks to be a fairly broad-based health care company based in Pennsylvania, by the information we have here, but, again, not one of those major pharmaceutical companies that most investors might be familiar with.

O'BRIEN: Rhonda Schaffler, thank you very much for adding that little piece of information to us: West Pharmaceuticals company, a thinly traded company based in Pennsylvania, their plant in Kinston, North Carolina, now up in flames as we speak.

Let's go to someone who is nearby. Ike Southerland is the principal of a nearby school.

Mr. Southerland, can you hear me? IKE SOUTHERLAND, PRINCIPAL, ARENDELL-PARROTT ACADEMY: Yes.

O'BRIEN: Can you tell us what you saw and what you heard this afternoon?

SOUTHERLAND: Some time, I'm estimating around 1:25, there was a clear explosion. It shook windows out of a number of our classrooms. I ran now outside.

One of my parents who was outside said that a plane had crashed into a nearby pharmaceutical company. I tried to go in that direction, thinking that it was closer to our campus. But it was not. I came back. And then we began to mobilize to try to assess our situation.

O'BRIEN: How far away is your school from the site?

SOUTHERLAND: About a half a mile.

O'BRIEN: All right, half a mile and it shook windows.

And we should point out to our viewers that we've been told by numerous sources this was not caused by a plane crash. It was an internal explosion.

That's no reflection on you, Mr. Southerland. I just wanted to clarify that point.

SOUTHERLAND: OK. Good.

O'BRIEN: Tell us about the students right now. What are you doing? How are you responding?

SOUTHERLAND: Well, our students, we have evacuated all of our students by either bus or by the parents coming to the campus and picking them up. When our parents were unable to pick them up, we loaded our children on to buses and took them to a central site at Kinston High School in Kinston for their parents to pick them up there. And that was done at the request of the police.

O'BRIEN: Is your school sort of more in harm's way than Kinston High School? Was that the concern?

SOUTHERLAND: Yes, sir. We are considerably closer. We're probably -- Kinston High School is probably two miles from us. So, this would be moving the rest of our children further away from the site.

O'BRIEN: And the question I asked of the principal of Kinston High School, Craig Hill, was, with an employer this size in that community, there's undoubtedly students of yours who have parents who work there.

SOUTHERLAND: We do.

O'BRIEN: And what is being done for them? SOUTHERLAND: Well, let me say, first of all, that we really only have one parent of one child who is -- who works there. And we received a call quickly after the explosion that he was fine.

O'BRIEN: OK. So, you don't have any counseling needs at the moment.

SOUTHERLAND: We do not have any others.

O'BRIEN: Can you give us a sense, then? The description I have heard all afternoon is that this thick black smoke sort of smells like a tire fire. It's rubbery.

SOUTHERLAND: Yes, sir, that would probably be an accurate -- that would be an accurate description.

O'BRIEN: And have you been able to witness any of the emergency response and see how this is all unfolding?

SOUTHERLAND: Only in front of our campus. I have not been able to, obviously, witness it at the site.

But the police department have been outstanding, as well as the emergency management folks here in the county as far as giving us direction about what we needed to do about our children.

O'BRIEN: Yes, it's a time for accurate communication, isn't it? It's good to see that the drills work, isn't it?

SOUTHERLAND: Absolutely. Our emergency management folks and our local police department have been wonderful.

O'BRIEN: Yes. I presume, in your town, nothing like this has happened.

SOUTHERLAND: Not in my recollection.

O'BRIEN: Can you describe the explosion, what it sounded like to you? You said you were about a quarter mile away?

SOUTHERLAND: Yes.

A clap of thunder magnified probably 10 times. I have never been around a major explosion, but you absolutely could tell what that was.

O'BRIEN: Sort of a thud?

SOUTHERLAND: Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: Yes, all right.

SOUTHERLAND: And it shook every one of our buildings. And, like I said, it damaged about 10 classrooms.

O'BRIEN: All right, Ike Southerland, where all the students are safe and sound. The name of the school there is? SOUTHERLAND: Arendell-Parrott Academy.

O'BRIEN: All right. The students are safe, in case anybody has some concerns about that. And most of the parents have been notified. And, in your case, the one parent who has a link to West Pharmaceuticals is accounted for.

Principal Southerland, good luck and be safe out there.

SOUTHERLAND: Thank you, sir.

O'BRIEN: All right, let's go -- we were talking a little while ago to an employee of Segrave Aviation. The reason that's relevant is, this is right next door to the Kinston Airport.

And Jack Lambert was very close to the explosion and witnessed a lot and saw a lot and when into the woods and happened upon a few survivors. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAMBERT: Right now, we got helicopters landing right in front of us. It's just a mayhem here. We got fire departments from about four different counties here. It's just -- it's unbelievable.

O'BRIEN: Jack, it's kind of broken up. You're obviously on a cell phone out there. You're telling us about how many helicopters and the response. Can you just give us a sense of the response?

LAMBERT: The response, we've been overwhelmed. At the airport, we've got about seven or eight helicopters here. You can hear one landing behind me right now. The response from all different counties is here. We're just great, getting tremendous support from all the areas around us.

O'BRIEN: Give us a sense of what you heard and what you saw as this unfolded just a little while ago.

LAMBERT: OK. Well, I wasn't at the airport when it unfolded. I heard a big blast. I walked outside. And I just saw the huge amounts of smoke developing right near the airport. And I was about two miles and heard the blast.

O'BRIEN: Can you give us a sense, Jack, of what that smoke -- that smoke looks very, very dense. What does it smell like there?

LAMBERT: It smells like a bunch of rubber. And I'm hearing chemicals. I actually walked in the woods behind it and helped some people out from the blast. Like I said, it blew the roof off a good 400 feet down the road. And it caught on the -- it got all the woods on fire. But we're getting tremendous support from the area around here right now.

O'BRIEN: What a tremendous explosion.

Tell us about the people you helped out. What was their condition? What did you do for them?

LAMBERT: Their condition, they just had multiple burns on their arms and their back. We got them out, got them in help, got them into the ambulances. It's just -- it's unbelievable here, sir.

O'BRIEN: Did they give you any sense of what went on in there? Did they have any sense of what might have caused this?

LAMBERT: I didn't have time. I was asking them if they knew of anybody else that we could help.

And, of course, we went into the building and got them and just helped multiple people out -- and, again, multiple burns on the body. They wasn't sure exactly what happened. They just said: We just heard a big blast. Get us out of here.

O'BRIEN: And their condition in general, obviously, they were walking wounded, so to speak.

LAMBERT: Yes, well, wounded, just -- I mean, kind of just unsure of where they were. They were really unsure really what happened. They just knew they just got burned and something happened.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: All right.

Just to recap for you, that was Jack Lambert. We spoke with him just a little while ago. He's an employee at the airport nearby there and saw a lot, heard a lot, and helped out some of the injured there.

To recap for you, the explosion occurred at 1:27 p.m. Eastern time and was a tremendous explosion which blew the roof of that facility off by about 400 feet, according to Mr. Lambert, as you just heard. Debris rained down all throughout the area. We saw evidence of at least one brush fire nearby there.

The facility employs a total of 225 people, but that's a bit misleading. At any given time on any given shift, we're told about 100 people would be there at this time of day.

As you look down the right of the your screen there, that's the so-called triage area, where the rescue workers, medical workers are assessing the injuries and deciding who should be dispatched when and to where. A spokesman at a nearby hospital is telling us three people were at that hospital in critical condition with burns, more victims expected there.

The University of North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill, not too far away by helicopter, was told to expect patients. But we don't know how many might be headed in that direction. You can expect those helicopters will scatter in all directions, taking injured to burn centers all throughout the state of North Carolina.

One of the people who lives near the plant, Lee Edwards (ph), said debris from two 800-foot water towers actually flew up into the air. And he described this tremendous black smoke, which, to a person, all the witnesses have said, smells rubbery. The facility, West Pharmaceuticals, in this particular facility, they manufacture pharmaceutical delivery devices, syringes and the like, I.V. supplies. Kinston, North Carolina, which is sort of halfway between Raleigh and the coast, a city of about 25,000 people.

We have a reporter on the line.

I did not get the name. Molly pool. I can't hear it. Say it again. I'm not getting the first name. But if the reporter on the line would please -- Wally. OK, Wally Poole is on line.

Wally, what do you have for us?

WALLY POOLE, TACC REPORTER: We're overlooking the view at the West Pharmaceutical company now live.

And what it is, is, they were talking about the black rubbery smell. What that is, is, the roof has exploded and it has taken the rubber roof and the insulation from the roof and blown it in numerous directions. So, that's the rubber smell that they were talking about, the smell that they see.

Right now, we're looking at the front part of the building. And you can see where the fire has just taken the metal completely down and to the metal itself -- the sheet metal from the outside is gone. But the steel from the outside is still there.

O'BRIEN: All right, Wally, if we could back up just a little bit, when did you arrive on the scene? What did you see then? And where were you dispatched out of, for starters?

POOLE: OK, well, we were dispatched out of the Kinston origination channel right here in Kinston, North Carolina.

We had basically been working for the last hour and a half, basically being detoured around. So now we've got a direct -- we are actually at a direct shot. I'm looking at the front of West Pharmaceuticals as I'm speaking to you right now. I know you can't see it live on TV, but I'm speaking with you and looking right at the rescue crews in the front of the billing right now. And there's actually fire still coming out from the top part of the building right now.

O'BRIEN: Wally, from where you sit, what do you see? How many injured have you seen, do you see right now? Have you gotten any sense from authorities there as to the number of injured and potential fatalities?

POOLE: No, we have only heard that there are three people injured. Right now, probably -- I can't speculate on that, because we have not -- they will not let you up right up to the building. We are actually probably a half a mile in front of the building on a separate road that we've got access to by the state.

O'BRIEN: Wally Poole, with TACC-9 News there in Kinston, North Carolina, giving us some additional insights, our first report from a reporter on the scene.

Just to give you a quick recap before we send it off to TALKBACK LIVE: explosion and fire, the fire still burning, perhaps contained, but definitely not under control at the West Pharmaceuticals facility in Kinston, North Carolina. It happened about 1:27 p.m. Eastern time, a tremendous response there and numerous injured.

We are told by authorities to expect some fatalities, although we still don't have any numbers on that, also reports there might be people still trapped inside, no additional information on that -- the explosion apparently an internal explosion. Early reports of an airplane going in have been discounted. And it's our belief, at this point, that the explosion, whatever caused it, was internal to that factory, where they make syringes, and I.V.s and the like.

That's the scene in Kinston, North Carolina. We're going to leave it at that right now. We'll be watching the story very closely. And as events warrant, we will bring you additional details.

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