Officials Struggle To Find Cause Of Flare Plant Fire

Officials at a West Tennessee facility that makes flares for the U.S. military said they're puzzled about the cause of a fire that injured three workers.

TOONE, Tenn. (AP) -- Officials at a West Tennessee facility that makes flares for the U.S. military said they're puzzled about the cause of a fire that injured three workers.

An explosion and flash fire erupted Sept. 14 inside a section of a building at the Kilgore Flares Co. plant in Toone, Tenn.

The fire rattled the residents of Toone, a town of about 340 people roughly 70 miles northeast of Memphis. About 100 employees, or half the work force, returned to their jobs Monday in what company President Chris Watt called a "controlled startup."

Investigators could not enter the building until Friday, The Jackson Sun reported. Officials had decided to let the fire burn out rather than fight it because chemicals used to manufacture flares posed a danger to fire crews.

The three injured workers, who were each burned on more than half of their bodies, were in critical condition at The Regional Medical Center in Memphis.

However, more than a week after the fire, company officials still don't know what caused it. An investigation team consisting of federal and state officials and Kilgore workers was continuing its investigation Tuesday, Watt said.

"We have a lots of leads," said Kilgore Production Manager Edwin Tigue, "but we haven't put our fingers on the just cause yet, and that is what's got everybody puzzled."

The three injured employees were putting together countermeasure decoy flares used to protect Air Force F-16 fighter jets from heat-seeking missiles. The workers were stationed in a section of the 800-square-foot building called a slurry room, isolated from others by a concrete wall and two, 1-inch reinforced steel doors.

Slurry is a mix of molten magnesium, Teflon and other ingredients heated to at least 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. It coats the inner part of a flare so it burns properly. Some of Kilgore's flares burn at 6,000 degrees, Watt said.

The slurry is separated from workers by a partial wall and a translucent shield. Workers stick their hands through slots in the walls to work with the slurry.

Investigators on Monday were still trying to determine whether the fire started on the workers' side of the room, or the slurry side, said Tigue, who said he had finished a safety inspection minutes the fire broke out.

"We are torn between where it happened," Tigue said. "Was it inside or outside the booth where they dip the flares?"

The majority of employees who returned to work Monday were in purchasing, administration, maintenance and other non-production areas. Some flares were being assembled, but no one was working in an area where slurry is used to make them, Watt said.

Watt visited the three burn victims and their relatives this past weekend. He said a blood bank will be at Kilgore on Wednesday to accept donations.

Also, a prayer vigil for the three and their relatives is set for 6 p.m. Wednesday near the Hardeman County Courthouse on Main Street in nearby Bolivar, Tenn.