1994 tragedy bonds plant, Belpre

BELPRE – Those who were there remember the community being united by action, grief and later support when a deadly explosion struck Shell Chemical’s Belpre plant 20 years ago.

“That’s probably the most traumatic thing to ever happen to this community,” said Belpre Mayor Mike Lorentz, who worked in maintenance at the plant in 1994. “I lost three friends, three guys I worked with.”

The incident occurred around 6:30 a.m. May 27, 1994. The plant will mark the anniversary with a moment of silence and flags at half staff.

Lorentz was getting ready for work that Friday morning when he heard the explosion. His wife initially thought the Speedway near their house had gone up in flames, but when he looked out the window and saw the smoke rising, he recognized the source.

“I said, ‘Honey, it’s not Speedway. That’s the plant,'” he said.

Deputy Sheriff Mark Warden of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office was on vacation that week. He spotted the smoke in Churchtown.

“I actually saw the plume from my house and rolled on in,” said Warden, who is now the office’s chief deputy.

Warden was among hundreds of police and firefighters responding to the scene, shutting down traffic and trying to evacuate residents in a one-mile radius of the plant.

“The actual fire itself was just amazing, the size of it and the heat it was putting off,” he said.

The sight of flames shooting up into the air remains with Steve Null, who owned the Belrock Diner and brought sandwiches to the workers battling the blaze.

“I swear I could see the devil’s face in it,” he said.

Null said he also brought 200 pounds of ice and was allowed to bring it into a portion of the plant. He saw his brother, a Shell employee, there and wound up taking down phone numbers of workers who wanted him to call their families and tell them they were OK.

Lorentz said the initial reactions he felt were shock and grief, but looking back he also remembers how the community united in a time of need.

“They were all there to lend support and help,” he said.

A group that swung into action was the Central Ohio Valley Industrial Emergency Organization, or COVIEO, an alliance of major chemical facilities in the area. Arnie Green, who has since retired from DuPont Washington Works, said the group had planned for such disasters, listing the resources that each could provide.

“It worked just like it was supposed to, providing support to our fellow workers over at Shell,” he said.

Private industry worked with fire departments and law enforcement to respond to the situation, Green said. While the tragedy of the three men who died remains, he said he looks at the response in a positive light.

“I think that’s what I reminisce (about), is how things worked that we had in place,” Green said.

Shell quickly announced its intentions to remain in Belpre, and area residents showed their support. Signs bearing the phrase “Let’s Support Our Good Neighbor” around the Shell logo sprung up around town.

“Shell’s been a good provider,” Null said. “I’d say it was just a blessing that they were able to open the place back up.”

Lorentz said the plant, now Kraton Polymers, remains a good neighbor, supporting the community as a partner in education for area schools and supporting local organizations. For the city, the company donated a modifying ingredient to add elasticity and body to asphalt the city put down on roads, extending their life.

Employees are encouraged to volunteer in the community, and two mayors, three council presidents and multiple board of education members have been employed there, Lorentz said.

“There’s probably not another organization in the community that’s made the commitment that Kraton and Shell have,” he said.