Keyser, WV Laboratory Explosion, Aug 1981


Keyser, W.Va. (AP) -- An explosion that was felt several miles away killed two workers and destroyed on building at the Allegany Ballistics Laboratory explosives center in rural Mineral County, the company said.
The blast, at 10:40 p.m. Monday, was in one of the hundreds of buildings comprising the sprawling complex known as Rocket Center, which makes solid fuel propellants for U.S. Government missiles.
"I felt it in my apartment and I'm seven miles away," Steve Richards, a newsman for Cumberland, Md., radio station WTBO, said of the explosion. "It was like a rumbling sound. The place shook like a really bad thunderstorm."
The bodies of the victims, CHARLES W. FOLK, 26, of Mount Savage, Md., and BRUCE LeGEER, 25, of Cumberland, Md., had not been recovered, John Burch, the center's quality assurance director, said at mid morning today.
He said the area had been sealed off and Hercules, Inc., the parent company of the laboratory, had dispatched its safety director to the site to investigate the accident.
He said debris from the 1,000-square-foot, wooden building was scattered "a thousand feet away."
"There is no building any longer," Burch said.
A spokesman for James E. Midgarden, vice president and manager of the laboratory, said,
"The operation being conducted (at the time of the explosion) involved the preparation of liquid explosives for use in plant operations."
The spokesman, who asked not to be named, said the cause of the accident had not been determined.
"We don't know exactly what they were doing," said Burch. "We're trying to piece together the story from fellow workers."
The explosion knocked out power lines at the complex, plunging it into darkness.
Burch said damage was confined to the one building where the explosion occurred.
Burch said the buildings were constructed to prevent the spread of an explosion. He said timbers and earth are piled against the side of each building so that the force of an explosion would go skyward.
Nine people were killed in an explosion at the complex in May 1961 and three others died in a similar accident in April 1963.
The complex, spread over 425 acres along the Potomac River in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle, is operated by Hercules under a contract with the Navy, the spokesman said. The nearest city is Cumberland, Md., about 10 miles to the northeast.
"Work at the plant is proceeding normally. Personnel who were scheduled for the morning shift were reporting for work," said the spokesman. About 800 people are employed at the facility.
The complex was opened early in World War II to make artillery shells. After the war, the center began doing rocket research for the U.S. Navy.
At its height, the center employed 2,000 people to help produce Polaris missiles for the Navy, said M.P. Thompson, manager of General Services for Hercules Inc.
Center spokesmen declined to be specific about what rockets their propellants are used in now, saying the information was classified.
"They make a lot of things they don't tell you about," said C. A. Lancaster, managing editor of the Cumberland (Md.) Times-News.

The News Frederick Maryland 1981-08-11