20 years ago, a thunderous explosion shook the Lehigh Valley
ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Two decades later, it’s the thunderous boom — the unmistakable sound of something disastrous — that many in the Lehigh Valley remember about that night.
But for Amy Heller, who was inside Concept Sciences Inc. on Feb. 19, 1999 — a milestone night crucial to the chemical company’s fortunes — the quiet stands out.
Crossing the production floor of the big plant that Friday, Heller walked past a colleague, Anthony Mondello, who was reading a book of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry. She chatted with Paul Mondello, Anthony’s son, about his upcoming wedding, and he drew a picture of a guitar he wanted to make. She thanked Ruben Soto for the frozen lasagna he had given her because she had brought him dinner earlier in the week.
The plant’s machinery was humming, turning a powdered ammonia derivative called hydroxylamine into what the Hanover Township, Lehigh County, company hoped would be a lucrative final product, a liquid used for cleaning production residue from computer chips.
Only two other companies in the world made the solution — one in Germany, the other in Japan — so the market was ripe for Concept Sciences, founded by chemist and entrepreneur Irl “Chip” Ward Jr.
The task that night was to make the company’s first large-scale, commercial batch of the product. Recounting events in a written statement — she gets too emotional to talk about it — Heller said no one seemed worried, despite a mechanical glitch that prompted a call to the Northampton home of plant manager Paul Wanamaker. A few minutes after 8 p.m., he arrived to look things over.
The 20,000-square-foot plant was housed in one of those nondescript industrial parks that line Route 22 between Bethlehem and Allentown. Besides Heller, the workers on hand included the Mondellos, Anthony, 55, of Pen Argyl, and Paul, 25, of Palmer Township; Wanamaker, 42; Soto, 52, of Bethlehem; and Deliang “Dave” Ding, 40, a lab technician from Wescosville.
Everything seemed fine. Until it wasn’t.
In an office next door to Concept Sciences was 48-year-old Terry Bowers, who lived in Hanover Township, Lehigh County, not far from the industrial park. He managed Sugarloaf Mid-Atlantic, a manufacturer of toy vending machines.
The distillation process at Concept Sciences involved mixing several hundred pounds of hydroxylamine — described in chemical industry literature as “thermally unstable” and capable of spontaneously igniting in the air or on contact with copper or other metals — with potassium sulfate.
Earlier in the week, the process had been shut down because of a water leak. Now, another problem had cropped up — crystals had formed in the distillation still, indicating the mix had grown unstable. That’s what prompted the call to Wanamaker.
By the time he arrived, Heller, of Orefield, was in her office cubicle, away from the production machinery. Ding was in the break room, eating a pretzel.
Heller, 26 at the time, had just finished graduate work in analytical chemistry. She had been hired six months earlier to analyze samples from the production process and had no part in the mechanical end of things.
“Everything seemed fine,” she wrote. “Until it wasn’t.”
At 8:14 p.m., the process tank exploded with a deafening roar.
And for Heller, “everything turned brown.”
‘A very chaotic night’
The blast was equivalent to roughly 800 pounds of TNT. People heard it as far away as the Poconos and the smoke was visible for seven miles.
At Lehigh University, five miles south, the explosion registered on a seismograph as a 0.7 magnitude earthquake. The readings showed the ground at the blast site moved up and down and side to side.
“I remember screaming but not hearing myself,” Heller wrote. “The next thing I remember is hearing a man yelling, but I was too terrified to make a sound or move.”
The concussion shattered windows at nearby homes. Sections of the frame that held the distillation equipment were thrown 1,000 feet. A cloud drifted downwind of the plant and rained a whitish chemical residue over Allentown — it was later deemed to be nonhazardous — and the power went out for more than 1,800 PPL Electric Utilities customers in the area.
The blast gouged a hole 6 feet wide, 26 feet long and 16 inches deep in the concrete floor below the tank. Eleven other buildings in the industrial park were damaged, including a day care center, as were a number of cars crushed by a collapsed wall.
The human toll was terrible. The Mondellos, Wanamaker and Soto died. Heller and Ding were buried in rubble.
Bowers, next door at Sugarloaf Mid-Atlantic, was shielded by a concrete block wall, but it wasn’t enough to protect him. He died when a piece of metal struck his head.
More than 400 firefighters and other emergency personnel from three counties — scores of fire trucks, ambulances and police — poured into the site and beheld a landscape of smoldering ruin.
“It was a very chaotic night,” said Garren Knoll, a firefighter then in his mid-20s who is now chief of the Han-Le-Co Fire Company. “It was a very long day and night. I think I was there for about 20 hours.”
Robin Yoder, Han-Le-Co fire chief at the time, arrived minutes after the blast — he had been out driving when he heard emergency calls on the scanner — and knew immediately he was dealing with something far more powerful than a natural gas mishap.
“I had the state police with me right off the bat and their question was, ‘What do you want us to do?’ I knew I had a day care center down at the end, so I told them to go down and check to make sure it was empty.”
As more first responders arrived, Yoder directed them to look for survivors. They came upon Heller, who had managed to thrust a hand up through the rubble.
“Eventually someone found me, pulled me out and took me to a decontamination tent,” Heller recalled. “I was then taken to St. Luke’s (Hospital). I distinctly remember asking someone in the ambulance for a cellphone so I could call my parents. I will never forget hearing my dad’s voice on the other end of the line.”
At the time, rescuers said Heller likely survived because a large piece of metal had shielded her from a cascade of concrete blocks.
Ding suffered two broken ribs and a broken arm. In an interview from his hospital bed two days after the disaster, he said he had slipped in and out of consciousness, unable to move from the weight of the debris, until a team of Catasauqua firefighters noticed a pair of bare feet sticking out. Ding literally had been blown out of his shoes.
Yoder, even then a seasoned firefighter, said he encountered Irl Ward in the chaos.
“He came up to me and said, ‘This is a gas explosion.’ I looked him straight in the face and said, ‘No, it isn’t. What are you doing in there that could cause this kind of explosion?’
“He said they weren’t doing anything that could have.”
In all, 14 people were injured, including first responders and workers at a nearby package delivery facility. Heller suffered a ruptured eardrum and a lot of bruises, plus emotional trauma that crops up at times even today.
“Loud, unexpected sounds sometimes alarm me more than they should,” she wrote.
Three days after the blast, Ward held a tearful news conference and vowed to find out what happened.
“I will not rest until I know what went wrong,” he said.
Federal investigators, however, determined that whatever went wrong could have been prevented had Ward heeded warnings from a year earlier, when a company told him the distillation process Concept Sciences was using could be dangerous.
That information emerged in November 2000 when a federal grand jury in Philadelphia indicted Ward on 12 criminal counts under workplace safety laws.
The indictment said Ashland Chemical, the Ohio company that had agreed to buy the free base from Concept Sciences, sent Ward a memo warning that his method of distilling hydroxylamine was a “significant safety issue” and “probably will not work.”
On the memo, the indictment said, Ward scrawled “Baloney!”
In 2002, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board released a case study saying the explosion was “most likely” due to high concentration and temperature in the distilling process. The more concentrated hydroxylamine becomes, the more unstable.
That is why the Japanese company, Nissin Chemicals, was distilling it to only 50 percent. An hour before the explosion at Concept Sciences, the concentration had reached 86 percent, according to the indictment, and crystals had formed in the still, spelling trouble. Heat, federal investigators concluded, likely triggered the blast.
Overheating contributed to a similar explosion 16 months later that destroyed Nissin’s plant, killing four people and injuring 28. That left one company, German chemical giant BASF, as the world’s only supplier of the lucrative product.
Ward faced a maximum sentence of two years in prison and a $3 million fine. But the charges, all misdemeanors, were dismissed less than a year later, when a federal judge ruled it was unclear whether Concept Science’s production process was covered under certain manufacturing regulations.
Jessica Mondello, who lost her father and brother in the blast, believes the judge’s ruling was wrong.
“It’s unfair it happened and it never should have happened,” she said in a recent interview.
When the judge dismissed the case on Sept. 10, 2001, Mondello focused her anger on Ward, saying “I think it’s just disgusting that he’s getting away with it. You feel like there’s no justice.”
Ward, who has never commented, declined several recent requests to be interviewed.
Fay Wanamaker of Northampton, widow of Paul Wanamaker, was measured in her response when contacted recently.
“All I know is, I Iived through it and I survived, and that’s all I keep thinking about,” she said. “I really don’t have anything more to say.”
In 2005, the families of four of the victims settled lawsuits against the company’s primary financial backers. The confidential agreements ended the major litigation stemming from the blast. Workers compensation laws prevented employees’ families from suing Concept Sciences or Ward, so they instead sued Ashland Chemical and several related companies, including equipment providers.
Concept Sciences settled with federal and state agencies that had imposed fines and cleanup costs, paying $300,000 to the state Department of Environmental Protection for cleanup after the blast — less than half of what the agency sought — and $250,000 in fines to the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration for violating workplace safety rules.
In 2004, Ward started a new company, PPT Research Inc., which produces non-volatile liquid abrasives and coolants for machining operations. The company is on Business Park Lane in east Allentown — just south of Route 22 and within two miles of the Roble Road facility that housed Concept Sciences.
Seth Weber, a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case against Ward, said he trusts Ward has made appropriate changes to ensure his workers’ safety and to protect the environment.
“Hopefully, it was a lesson that Mr. Ward learned,” Weber said.
John Kalynych, coordinator of Lehigh County’s special operations team, which deals with everything from hazardous spills to building collapses, remembers the night vividly. He was one of four firefighters who rescued Heller from the wreckage.
He said it would be unrealistic to say emergency responders are completely equipped to deal with every catastrophic situation. But Lehigh County has committed more resources and greatly improved its emergency preparedness, he said, noting the county added a rescue unit to its haz-mat department about 10 years ago.
“The response capabilities have been enhanced considerably since Concept Sciences,” he said. “We are in a much better place to respond to something of that magnitude today.”
The 2002 case study by the chemical safety investigation board said another factor contributing to the scale of the disaster was where Concept Sciences, a company dealing in volatile chemicals, was allowed to operate — in a mixed-use industrial park that included other businesses.
Hanover Township’s zoning laws permitted the use at the time. Concept Sciences opened there because its first choice, neighboring Hanover Township, Northampton County, prohibited chemical manufacturing.
Yoder, the former fire chief, said such uses are no longer allowed under that zoning. The township also now inspects every building within its borders every five years.
Kerry Wrobel, president of Lehigh Valley Industrial Park Inc., said in addition to permits required by municipalities for companies that want to locate in one of LVIP’s seven parks, the LVIP board requires bulk chemical manufacturers to obtain a special exception.
“In my nearly 18 years, we have not seen uses that require any special exceptions,” Wrobel said.
Nobody should have to worry about saying goodbye to their loved ones as they go to work, only to have them not come home that night.
Amy Heller, who survived the blast
Twenty years later, 749 Roble Road is home to another nondescript industrial building. No memorial marks the episode. But Knoll, the fire chief, said someone made a plaque that hangs in the Han-Le-Co firehouse. It includes photos of the wreckage and a melted piece of a fire extinguisher found in the blast.
Heller said her memories of the events are difficult, “but the physical and emotional trauma I suffered pales in comparison to what the Mondello, Wanamaker and Soto families have gone through, as well as the family of the gentleman (Bowers) who worked next door.
“Nobody should have to worry about saying goodbye to their loved ones as they go to work, only to have them not come home that night.”
Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com