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62-year-old Methuen man identified as worker killed in Newburyport blast

The Essex County District Attorney's office has confirmed the worker who died in an explosion at a pharmaceutical chemical plant Thursday as Jack O'Keefe, 62, of Methuen.

It took rescue workers several hours before they could enter the building to search for what authorities believe was a missing worker, due fire damage to the building . Later on Thursday, they were able to recover O'Keefe's body.

Four workers were sent to a hospital, but were uninjured and released.

Acting Newburyport Fire Chief Stephen Bradbury III described the blast as a seven-alarm hazardous materials event and said crews were expected to resume cleanup Friday morning, including removing chemicals from the building.

Authorities said there was no threat to the nearby population.

The explosion happened around 1 a.m. Thursday at the Seqens/PCI Synthesis plant, officials said. Video footage showed most of the roof torn off a building, and the blast blew a vat from inside the building 30 feet into a parking lot, Bradbury said in a news release. This marks at least the third safety problem at the plant since 2020.

U.S. Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts said the company needs to provide answers about what happened.

“We can’t keep excusing companies’ flagrant disregard for worker safety," he said in a tweet.

It wasn’t immediately known what caused the explosion, or what — if any — chemicals were involved. Smoke from the fire blew into a largely unpopulated area, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which added that initial air monitoring found no significant problems. The air monitors did pick up minor levels of hydrogen cyanide, but they were below the OSHA hazardous level.

In a stream adjacent to the facility, there was a small fish die-off, according to an EPA press release. The local fire department says environmental cleanup crews are on scene to assess any impact the explosion may have had on the local streams.

“All our attention is focused on the situation of our employees,” PCI Synthesis said in a statement.

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A chemical fire in the building in June 2021 sent smoke pouring out of roof vents and prompted a hazardous materials team to respond, according to a fire department statement at the time.

In 2020, authorities said a chemical reaction caused a series of explosions at the plant. That happened a year after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found “serious” violations in how the company managed highly hazardous chemicals, according to online agency records.

The factory has also been cited by OSHA for workplace safety violations and in 2019 paid a penalty of more than $50,000 to settle Environmental Protection Agency charges that it violated hazardous waste laws.

On Thursday, workers at the industrial park where the plant is located were asked to avoid the area.

With reporting from the Associated Press and WBUR's John Bender and Paula Moura.

This article was originally published on May 05, 2023.

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