A massive acid-fuelled blast in the East London IDZ injured 12 workers in an auto parts factory, causing panic in surrounding communities and damaging three nearby factories.
The explosion ripped through brick and metal walls at Feltex Automotive Trim factory, suppliers of car interiors to Mercedes Benz, on Tuesday night.
According to a worker, a fire broke out inside the plant when maintenance workers were busy welding a broken machine and the flame made contact with acid tanks.
Describing the tanks as slightly bigger than a 20000-litre plastic tank, the source said the fire was followed by a “volcanic” explosion.
Forty workers were on a shift inside the plant.
“The fire got out of hand and mixed with the acid.”
The blast took off the roof, brick walls and metal sides of the factory and parts of the adjacent factories.
The 10pm production shift was coming to an end, and with 30 minutes until knock-off time staff were filling in target sheets and tidying up.
As the blaze took hold inside the plant, staff tried to flee for their lives, but 12 were caught by a deluge of acidic fluid from large pipes running under the ceiling, which burst and flooded the area.
“My colleagues were burnt by acid. People were crying and screaming. They will have scars for life. It is terrible.”
The source said everyone ran outside and at that point seven injuries were counted.
One person suffered a neck injury.
Feltex and the IDZ remained tight-lipped about the details of the explosion, injuries, damage to plant and property and the environmental impact on the area. Hundreds of workers from the plant and adjoining factories were told to stay home yesterday.
The Dispatch tried to visit the site but were barred by security.
Emergency workers and police cordoned off the area.
Residents in the surrounding areas said they thought they had been hit by an “earthquake”.
There was social chaos in Sunny Ridge Extension and Sunset Bay. People hit their panic buttons, Red Alert guard division regional manager Brett Harvey said.
Harvey and others said the explosion set off tremors across East London. Harvey said the company had been inundated with panic calls from Willow Park, Sunny Ridge, Greenfields and Cove Rock.
“In Sunny Ridge alone we received 50 calls from clients who thought they were under attack. Alarms went off like crazy, with people thinking that their homes were being bombed.”
Harvey said they had to call in extra response cars and technicians.
“People told us that they were thought it was an ATM or cash-in-transit bomb, while some thought their houses were being broken into.”
ELIDZ spokesman Sakhiwo Tetyana confirmed the incident happened at 9.30pm.
Feltex plant manager James Du Toit, speaking from the site, said: “It is too early – it is still way too early to be making statements to the public about the incident.”
Tetyana said: “Damage to the factory and offices was extensive, and the adjoining factory was also affected.”
He said an emergency response team and ELIDZ technical team were immediately mobilised and worked closely with the relevant authorities.
“The incident is now contained. The cause of the explosion is still under investigation and it is too early to speculate on what may have caused it,” said Tetyana.
Boniswa Magoda, from Sunny Ridge Extension, said she was walking to her Landa Avenue home when she saw an orange glow coming from the factory followed by a thunderous blast.
“Houses shook and people rushed outside the streets to check what was happening. Dogs were barking, children were crying.”
Sunset Bay resident Unam Mhlahleni said he felt like something was being rolled against his home.
“The noise was so loud it drowned out the volume of our sound system. We were watching a movie.”
Simphiwe Ndlebe, of Leaches Bay Township, said he knew something “big” had happened after seeing firefighters, ambulances and police rushing to the plant. “The blast shook our houses. Women were screaming. I thought it was a bomb.”
Life Healthcare group regional manager Bruce Janssens confirmed that 12 patients had been treated and discharged the same night.
“We hereby confirm that a total of 12 patients were received on e 3rd October 2017 in the accident and emergency units at Life St Dominic’s Hospital and Life Beacon Bay Hospital. All the patients were treated and discharged.”
East London police spokeswoman Warrant Officer Hazel Mqala said an inquiry docket had been been opened. “No foul play is suspected. No one has been arrested.”
Numsa national treasurer Mphumzi Maqungo called for an internal investigation into the incident.
Labour department spokeswoman Ziphozihle Josefu said occupational health and safety inspectors had also been sent to investigate. — firstname.lastname@example.org