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Blast at Washington aerospace plant hurls machinery, hurts 5

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — An explosion rocked an aerospace plant in northeast Washington, toppling large pieces of machinery, lifting an entire floor off its foundation and injuring five people, authorities said Wednesday.

The sheer power of the blast Tuesday night and the shrapnel it created caused the majority of the damage, and little to no fire ignited at Zodiac Aerospace in the small town of Newport, said Spokane Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer, who responded to the scene.

“The energy from that explosion went through that building almost like a tidal wave and destroyed or impacted everything in its path,” he said.

Schaeffer said the blast peeled open huge metal roll-up doors and led multiple areas to collapse in the large commercial building in the town 50 miles north of Spokane, along the Idaho border.

Thirty people were inside the plant, but most escaped with help from emergency systems that worked properly, including a sprinkler system, Schaeffer said. Five people were injured, whether from the pressure of the blast or penetrating injuries from shrapnel, he said.

Two victims were taken to a Spokane hospital, where one was in critical condition and another in stable condition, Pend Oreille County Undersheriff Grant Sirevog said. Three others were treated and released from a hospital in town.

The state Department of Labor and Industries will investigate the explosion because it was an industrial accident with multiple injuries, agency spokesman Tim Church said.

“We are looking for safety violations,” Church said

The blast stemmed from vapors released while manufacturing chemicals used to make fire-resistant components for aircraft interiors, said Schaeffer, who responded with a hazardous-materials team.

It appeared a machine using chemicals to treat fiberglass cloth was to blame, Sirevog said.

But Zodiac Aerospace SA, a French company that makes aircraft components around the world, said in a news release that the cause of the explosion is not known and will be investigated by the company and government agencies.

“Our first thoughts go to our five colleagues who have been injured,” the company said.

The plant in Newport employs about 100 people and is one of seven Zodiac Aerospace facilities in Washington.

Zodiac Aerospace is a key supplier to Boeing Co., which has a huge presence in the state. The Newport plant makes various components for the interiors for Boeing and Airbus jetliners.

“At this time we are working to determine what, if any, impact there may be to our production system,” Chicago-based Boeing said in a written statement.

Officials had been concerned about thousands of gallons of contaminated water from the plant reaching a nearby river after water lines ruptured and the sprinkler system activated and then broke, Schaeffer said.

But regulators responded and found no contamination outside the plant, state Department of Ecology spokeswoman Brooke Beeler said. No cleanup was required, she said.

Volunteer firefighter Chris Demlow, 52, said he heard the explosion and ran into his backyard, about five blocks from the facility.

“There was just this huge black mushroom cloud of smoke,” Demlow said.

Inside the plant, “the ceiling has come down and all (the sprinkler lines) that were bent and broken were pouring water onto the floor,” he said. “It was just real loud, all the alarms were going off.”

Schaeffer said the plant is one of the largest employers in the town of 2,000 residents, located in the depressed northeastern corner of Washington.

“It’s pretty devastating to that area,” he said.

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Associated Press writers Courtney Bonnell and Alina Hartounian in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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