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Explosion rocks Danvers, several hurt, none seriously

Officials begin painstaking search for cause of blast

Firefighters battle flames in Danvers
Firefighters battled flames this morning after a massive explosion at a chemical plant in Danvers that people felt as far away as New Hampshire. Officials said it was a "miracle" no one was killed. (Globe Staff Photo / Janet Knott)

The massive chemical explosion at a Danvers printing plant early this morning became the equivalent of a 10-alarm fire, with rescuers from more than 30 cities and towns rushing in the predawn darkness to a blast that reverberated as far away as New Hampshire.

The force of the explosion damaged some 90 buildings in a half-mile radius, knocking homes off foundations, splintering glass and cracking chimneys. Twenty-five may be a total loss. Town building inspectors went door-to-door through the Danversport neighborhood, tagging unsafe houses with orange markers that read: "No entry."

Yet despite a towering fireball, flying splinters of glass and crumbled bricks, no one was seriously hurt or killed. About 10 people were taken to local hospitals with cuts and bruises.

Governor Mitt Romney toured the destruction and called it a "Thanksgiving miracle," echoing the sentiment of rescuers and firefighters who were amazed that no one was killed.

"The miracle is that you have the equivalent of a 2,000-pound bomb going off in a residential neighborhood at night when everybody is home and no one is dead and no one is seriously hurt," said Romney.

While firefighters spread white foam on the smoldering flames, officials said they may never be able to determine what sparked such an intense explosion. Investigators, however, had not found anything that would indicate arson.

"There's no red flag," said State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan. "This will be a long-term, methodical investigation that will involve a series of interviews and a reconstruction of that building, but that portion of the investigation is days away."

"It will take ... time to excavate and get to the origins of where the explosion may have occurred," Coan said.

The explosion occurred at CAI, Inc., which makes solvents and ink in an industrial park along the Danvers River off Route 35, near the Peabody town line.

"All of us at CAI are shocked and devastated by this accident," CAI treasurer Paul Sartorelli said in a press release. "Our foremost concern is for the safety and well-being of our neighbors and employees."

Company officials did not know what caused the accident as of Wednesday night, he added. Sartorelli said the company had an "impeccable" safety record and underwent major safety upgrades in 2001.

Crews from the federal Environmental Protection Agency have been at the scene since early this morning to monitor air quality. EPA spokesman Michael Nalipinski told reporters at a press conference that they had not found a significant spike in chemicals in the air. Crews were in the process of performing more air and water tests, Nalipinski said.

Residents described an earthquake-like explosion that literally knocked them out of their beds at about 2:45 a.m. Authorities closed off nearby roads and tried to control the crowds as people wandered into the streets. Some described a huge mushroom cloud hovering over the area.

Frances Fratus said she heard a noise that sounded like "thunder" that knocked her out of bed. She looked out her window about 500 yards from the explosion and saw "a giant ball of fire, going up about 100 feet in the air."

"The impact blew in all our cellar windows and my front door was blown out," said Fratus, 63.

After sunrise people assessed the damage. Cracks stretched across the walls of Richard and Cindy Parker's house on Water Street, about a block from the explosion. Windows were blown out of frames, and Richard Parker had to axe his way out the front door because the force of the blast had twisted the frame. Objects fell off counters and shelves. The impact knocked ash out of the chimney, spewing it across the living room floor.

"It felt like something actually hit the house," said Richard Parker, who was asleep with his wife in the second floor bedroom. The clock popped off the wall and stopped at 2:45 a.m.

Alan Farell was sleeping in a downstairs bedroom about 100 yards away when the explosion blew in his windows. He ran outside because he thought his own home was on fire.

"It was God awful," Farell said.

Residents were evacuated by bus to Danvers High School, where the Red Cross set up a shelter. The explosion displaced between 300 and 400 people, officials said. About 60 people from the nearby New England Home for the Deaf have also been evacuated. School in Danvers was cancelled for the day.

Residents in the most severely affected areas would not be allowed back into their homes until at least Friday, Fire Chief James Tutko said at a press conference Wednesday night.

Staff from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross were scheduled to staff an assessment center Friday and Saturday to help displaced residents.

Kathy McCabe, Donovan Slack, Christine McConville and Kay Lazar, David Rattigan and Andrew Ryan contributed to this report.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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