Liz McCormick Published

Putnam Co. Man Identified As Fatality In Belle Chemical Plant Explosion

John Gillenwater Facebook.jpg

A Putnam County man was identified Wednesday as the victim in a Tuesday evening plant explosion at the Optima Chemicals Co. in Belle that shook surrounding homes and prompted a temporary shelter-in-place order for several hours.

John Gillenwater, of Hurricane, was transported from the plant to a local hospital but later died, according to the Associated Press.

Gillenwater’s family acknowledged his passing in a statement.

“The family is devastated over the loss of their husband, father and friend John Gillenwater,” the statement said. “John was beloved by many in his community and his church. At this time, the family is dealing with the shock of this tragedy and we ask that you respect their privacy.”

Three others were injured in the fiery blast, which lit up the night sky and sent smoke clouds billowing along the river in Kanawha County.

In a news release from Optima Chemicals, the two employees who were hurt in the explosion were evaluated at a local hospital but have since been released. The fourth person injured was hit by debris while driving nearby, but was able to drive without help to Montgomery General Hospital.

CW Sigman, director of the Kanawha County Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said officials with local regulatory agencies, the plant itself and some of his team investigated the incident Wednesday morning.

“One of our folks was out in the neighborhood and making sure everything’s okay, and it seems to be,” Sigman said. “[And they made] sure there’s no odors or anything like that on either side of the river.”

Sigman said the explosion involved chlorinated dry bleach and methanol, with the latter acting as an accelerant. He said first responders worked to contain the fire but also allowed it to burn off rather than rely too much on firefighting foam, which is known to cause a potentially cancerous chemical known as PFAs.

“Probably the best way to handle it. That way, the firefighting foam, and all that stuff, will not contaminate the water,” he said. “Methanol burns pretty clean.”

Gov. Jim Justice acknowledged the incident in his Wednesday virtual press briefing on the state’s coronavirus response.

A spokesperson for Optima Chemicals said preliminary information indicates that the cause of the incident occurred as a result of a 1200-gallon metal dryer becoming over- pressurized during a chemical-product drying operation. The material in the dryer was a compound used for sanitization.

People who lived in the area reported their houses shook. Emergency officials announced a shelter-in-place order for two miles around the plant, and a nearby road was closed before firefighters were able to extinguish the flames and allow people to move around. The order was lifted early Wednesday morning.

The Chemours Co. formed as a spinoff from DuPont in 2015, and Optima has been a tenant of Chemours at the Belle location since that year.

Optima Chemical was established in 1991 from the chemical division of AFF. The West Virginia location manufactures specialty agricultural chemical products. Optima is headquartered in Georgia.

The 723-acre site is located along the Kanawha River about 10 miles southeast of Charleston. The town of Belle has about 1,100 residents.