DOZENS OF INJURIES & ONE DEATH AT VERLA COSMETICS EXPLOSIONS & FIRE
FINAL UPDATE – WEDNESDAY 11/22/2017
By Edie Johnson
New Windsor – A massive response to two explosions and a pervasive fire at Verla cosmetics factory on Temple Hill Rd. on Monday morning likely prevented deaths and more serious injuries, though there were some serious burns and injuries that resulted. By Wednesday morning all of the injured firemen, including the one airlifted to Westchester for burn care, were home and able to spend Thanksgiving with their families.
County officials noted that the second explosion occurred just as firefighters arrived. At 4 p.m. on Monday one employee was still missing. But Lt. Michael Farbent of the New Windsor Police Department reported that at about 7 p.m. on Monday evening, as the New Windsor Fire Department and Highway Department workers were searching through the rubble, they found the body of 57-year old William Huntington of Newburgh. Verla acknowledged “Bill was a valued employee and we at Verla are sorry to his friends and family for their loss.”
All of the other approximately 250 employees had been accounted for within hours of the first explosion. Orange County sent a Full County Haz Mat response and State Agencies were also on their way within about 2 hours.
At a 2 p.m. press conference at the New Windsor Town Hall, a stage full of county and state officials reported that numerous individuals had been thrown about from the explosions, and the fire that also caused miscellaneous burns and vapor inhalation, had resulted in an overnight hospital stay at St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital, Newburgh Campus, for one firefighter and an airlift to Westchester Hospital’s burn unit for another. The remaining approximately 30 injuries, mostly of employees, ended up at St. Luke’s to be checked out. All of those individuals, according to the hospital’s President and CEO, Joan Cusack-McGuirk had been released by Monday evening. At a Tuesday Press Conference announcing a new grant allocation, (see story inside), McGuirk said that the previous day’s exceptional performance by the St. Luke’s staff proved their mettle as a Level III Trauma Facility without a doubt.
Present at the press conference was County Executive, Steve Neuhaus, New Windsor Supervisor, George Green, Senator Bill Larkin, Emergency Services Commissioner, Brendan Casey, Health Commissioner Dr. Eli Avila, as well as representatives from the state DEC, state and local fire commissioners, including some of the fire department members who had been fighting the fire for over 3 hours. About a dozen news agencies came from all over the area, filling up the front of the New Windsor Courtroom.
The press conference lasted about 25 minutes, with County Exec. Neuhaus saying that officials and fire department members were eager to return to the scene, where the fire was less intense but still ongoing. State officials vowed they would investigate about a dozen OSHA violations that had been charged to the factory over the past year, to determine whether they were influential causative factors.
A triage area was set up to tend to the wounded. Initial reports of 80 injuries were later reduced since many were checked out as a precautionary measure due to minor headaches and chest pains from the toxic fumes, serious but not life-threatening.
The fire was believed to have started in a back area of the building where manufacturing includes alcohol and other flammable materials. Asked why a “Shelter in Place” was ordered by the county, officials said that it was ordered “out of an abundance of caution” due to the possibility of toxic fumes being spread by some windy conditions. County Fire Coordinator. Vinny Tankasala, said that Vail’s Gate Fire Department were the first to arrive, but eventually 30 departments including about 120 firemen came to their aid. Tankasala said that the wind was definitely a factor in the firefight.
The DEC noted that water and foam from the firefighting effort was being collected in canisters at the rear of the property in an effort to prevent it from entering Silver Stream where it might have caused infiltration into the drinking water resources. However, they added that the manufacturing plant is downstream from the water source and toxic flow into the water would not likely be a problem, particularly since most is being safely disposed of.
On Wednesday morning City Manager, Michael Ciaravino, gave a detailed status report of all City of Newburgh firefighters that had been injured, along with the good news that they are all now back at home with their families. (See page 6 for Ciaravino’s Open Letter and detail of Newburgh firefighter injuries sustained and a photo of one firefighter’s fire-demolished helmet).