Chaos, chemical risks hinder rescue efforts
EMS workers, chemists and air quality workers scramble over scene.
By JOE McDERMOTT
Of The Morning Call
A thunderous explosion destroyed a Lehigh County chemical plant near Route 22
Friday night, injuring at least nine people and sending out shock waves that
were felt for miles and heard as far away as Lehighton and Tobyhanna to the
north and Trexlertown and Longswamp Township to the west.
According to police reports and county officials, five people had been taken
to local hospitals by 11:15 p.m. and four were still reported trapped in the
rubble at 749 Roble Road. Three people from a building across the street were
also taken to hospitals for treatment.
The victims were decontaminated on the scene before being transported to
Lehigh Valley Hospital, Salisbury Township, and Muhlenberg Hospital in
The explosion occurred at 8:15 p.m. when employees at Concept Sciences
reportedly were mixing chemicals. Dozens of fire companies from Lehigh and
Northampton counties, numerous ambulance squads and MedEvac helicopters
responded to the scene.
Early reports of a chemical cloud drifting southwest over Allentown were later
discounted, but emergency management officials warned residents to keep doors
and windows closed just in case.
At 11 p.m. a smell of ammonia was reported coming off the building, but Lehigh
County Executive Jane S. Baker said, ''The air is fine, the air has always
A collapse team from Hershey Medical Center was on the way to the scene as of
late Friday night.
Two victims were found on the right edge of the east side of the collapse
zone, according to police scanner reports. One victim was brought out for
decontamination, and there was a small fire going on in the east side of the
By 9:50 p.m., rescue workers determined that they needed a crane because of
the unstable conditions. Workers found a 4-foot-deep crater in the center of
the structure. Air quality personnel and chemists were called to the scene.
By 10:30 p.m., rescue workers on the west side of the building said they
couldn't go into the building without risking their lives, according to the
Lehigh County Communications Center.
Jim Burns, community development director for the Lehigh region of PP&L Inc.
said 1,188 customers were without power from the time of the explosion until
10:40 p.m. A line out of the East Allentown substation, located at the end of
Plymouth Street, had to be taken out of service because of the blast, Burns
The explosion was felt across the Lehigh Valley and beyond.
About a dozen people parked their cars on Delaware Avenue about a half-mile
north of the site and stood under a clear and starry sky as a white, puffy
cloud crept south and hovered over Allentown. Several Catasauqua and east
Allentown home owners reported finding a white dust on their vehicles.
''I looked up and just above the trees I saw this blue and white light,'' said
Amy Kase, 17, of Delaware Avenue, Catasauqua. ''It looked like a fireworks
ball going up in the sky, then it expanded. It expanded with a ring of sparks
coming out of it.
''I heard a small boom and then a really loud boom. It was so loud that I had
to cover my ears.''
The explosion blew out windows in the home of Emma Reilly of Dauphin Road,
Hanover Township. Reilly said a glass she had placed on her kitchen counter
just before the explosion was shattered along with the windows.
''I screamed,'' said Reilly. ''I'm sure they could have heard me over there.''
Windows were also blown out of the home of Janet Dannecker, who lives on
Dauphin Road just ver a small hill from Concept Sciences. ''I knew it was an
explosion but I thought it was from the airport,'' Dannecker said.
Grover Stainbrook, executive vice president of Lehigh Valley Industrial Park
Inc., said Concept Sciences only recently moved into the building at 749 Roble
Road. The building was formerly occupied by AlliedSignal Inc.
Concept Sciences Inc. is the first U.S. manufacturer and supplier of free-base
A number of other companies, including TruGreen Chemlawn, Sugarloaf USA,
Meixell Brothers and ground carrier RPS, also have operations on Roble Road.
John Donchez, a TruGreen manager, said nobody was hurt in the building.
Morning Call staff writers Yung Kim, Kurt Bresswein, Christine Schiavo, Ron
Devlin, Elliot Grossman, Erika Chavez, Nick Politi contributed to this report.
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