State and federal investigators arrived at the Trojan Corp. explosives plant Tuesday afternoon and planned to spend most of Wednesday trying to determine the cause of an explosion that killed a Santaquin man and injured two others.
Arthur F. Dix, 38, died when an empty building exploded and caught fire Tuesday morning. He was one of three men assigned to decommission one of the unused buildings at the plant 45 miles east of Salt Lake City near the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon.Dix was also part of a larger family of 108 employees, many of whom huddled together for comfort just after the two separate blasts that reportedly were felt all across the southern end of Utah County.
Farrell Badger, business systems manager at Trojan, described the company's workers as a dedicated, tight-knit group of people.
"They are very somber and have expressed their willingness to assist in the investigation in any way they can," Badger said.
Dix's co-workers, Jerry Newitt, 41, Elk Ridge, and Larry Bradshaw, 57, Mapleton, were treated for minor injuries at Mountain View Hospital in Payson and released.
Shortly after 9:30 a.m. two quick blasts leveled the three-story building that once was used to mix explosive materials. Badger said the building had not been used for more than 18 months.
"When a building isn't used anymore, we take steps to decommission it," Badger said.
Workers at the plant said Dix and Bradshaw were inside the building and were helping load an empty ingredient tank onto a backhoe being operated by Newitt. The tank fell off the backhoe's bucket and hit a brick floor in the building, causing two quick detonations of some kind of material inside the building.
The explosion trapped Dix inside the building and blew Bradshaw through a door. Newitt was blown off the backhoe. The explosion ignited a fire that shot flames more than 10 feet in the air. Plant workers and firefighters tried to rescue Dix from the burning rubble but were unsuccessful. It took firefighters from Spanish Fork, Springville and Mapleton about 45 minutes to contain the blaze that sent a plume of smoke over south Utah County. The rubble smoldered for several hours as company officials allowed the fire to burn out.
Trojan officials were not commenting on a possible cause of the explosions, other than to say the official cause will be determined by investigators from the Utah Division of Occupational Safety and Health, the Spanish Fork Police Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Trojan's hazards review committee will also conduct an investigation.
Badger said no other buildings or employees were jeopardized by the explosion and fire. Precautions were also taken to protect other sensitive material in the area from further repercussions by restricting air traffic near the site.
He said the buildings themselves can become dangerous because of the volatile nature of the products manufactured inside. To protect workers, each building is constructed with a dirt berm surrounding it so the force of a blast goes upward instead of toward adjacent structures.
Until investigators know the cause of the blasts and determine the plant is safe, Trojan will remain closed down. Trojan is a privately owned subsidiary of Ensign-Bickford Industries, located in Simsbury, Conn. The Utah County plant manufactures explosives and primers for mining, construction and excavation. The company also fills defense contracts for the federal government.
"Trojan boosters are recognized as premium products in quality and performance," according to company literature. Since opening in 1940, Trojan has had a handful of accidental explosions. Some of those accidents resulted in fatalities, but no one has been killed at the plant in the past 20 years.
In December 1981, a blast leveled a building and left an 80-foot wide crater in the ground. In February 1989, a building blew up after explosive material that was being mixed overheated, detonating about 6,000 pounds of nearby explosive material. A bus bringing employees back from a break lost its windows and several employees suffered injuries to the eyes and ears in that incident.
Two months after that incident a company employee cleaning up debris from the explosion suffered injuries to his hands in another small explosion.
In 1987, an employee at Swenson Metal Salvage in Spanish Fork was killed and another critically injured when metal pipe that had come from Trojan exploded while the salvage workers were feeding it into a hydraulic shear. The pipe had retained bits of the unstable material that had flowed through it while in use at the plant.