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Multiple Investigations Are In Motion In Cosmetics Factory Fire

Courtesy of New York State Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services

Tuesday in Orange County, New York state and local authorities were trying to determine what triggered explosions and a fire at a cosmetics factory Monday morning in New Windsor. One employee was found dead and some 125 others were injured, including nine firefighters, at the plant that was cited for safety violations earlier this year.

Authorities identified the Verla International worker whose body was found Monday night as 57-year-old William Huntington, of the Town of Newburgh.  In a statement, the company said, "Bill was a valued employee and we at Verla are sorry to his friends and his family for their loss.” Juan Pablo Marcos, a co-worker, told The Associated Press that Huntington had gone back inside after the first explosion to make sure everyone had gotten out safely, and was still inside when the second blast occurred.

Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus released a statement Tuesday, saying the tragic event has deeply touched the community. His spokesman, Justin Rodriguez, says nine firefighters were injured — five from the City of Newburgh and four from Vails Gate, and that one of the Newburgh firefighters was taken to Westchester Medical Center for burns. These firefighters were caught in the second explosion, some 25 minutes after responding to the first blast. A St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital spokeswoman says 125 patients affected by the incident were treated.

Brendan Casey is commissioner of emergency services for Orange County. He says 30 different fire agencies responded from multiple counties. He said about 250 employees worked at the 52,000-square foot facility that manufactures primarily nail polish and perfumes.

“We knew that it was a chemical explosion that caused this. It was not a Tier 2 facility so it wasn’t a high-level hazmat [hazardous materials] facility,” said Casey. “We believe that whatever chemicals were in the fire or the smoke were alcohol-based.”

A number of agencies returned to the plant Tuesday, including the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Basil Seggos is commissioner.

“We’ve launched our investigation at the governor’s direction into practices at the plant that may have led to some of what we saw yesterday. That will continue over the coming days and weeks,” Seggos says. “There will obviously be work that needs to be done at the site itself. The plant was very badly damaged. And we’ll have a good sense over the next couple of days how much remediation off site is needed. I don’t believe it will be significant but, nonetheless, we’ll have our, we’ll have our teams make a full assessment.”

He says some of the air sampling results should be back toward the end of the week.

“Our initial investigation during the fire yesterday indicated that the hazardous materials, the hazardous waste, were actually stored in a different building than the one that caught on fire, which is fortunate. Some of the practices that are required by state and federal law require this sort of segregation of materials,” says Seggos. “So that may have been why yesterday we didn’t see the kinds of emissions that we would have seen under different circumstances.”

Meantime, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is inspecting Verla International because of the explosion. A spokesman says OSHA does not comment on open inspections, which can take up to six months. According to OSHA records, Verla was cited for nine safety violations in April. Two had to do with flammable and combustible liquids. The federal agency also cited inadequacies relating to respirator protection for workers and the maintenance of exit routes. The company agreed to pay $41,000 in penalties.

© WAMC and The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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