The state is investigating a deadly fire at the Verla International cosmetics plant last week. The blaze followed an explosion at the Temple Hill Road facility on Nov. 20. Another explosion took place as fire fighters entered the building a short time later.
More than 30 people were reported injured, including eight City of Newburgh fire fighters. Verla employee William Huntington, 57, of Newburgh, died in the fire. The exact cause of his death is still under investigation.
The cause of the fire had not been confirmed on Tuesday, however Vails Gate Fire Department Chief Chris Sweeney said there doesn’t appear to be any foul play involved. “It does appear to be accidental at this point,” Sweeney said Monday. “It is not suspicious.”
The fire began at about 10:20 a.m. in the newer section of the facility in the rear of the building. “The initial explosion started the fire,” Sweeney said, and firefighters were already inside the building when a second explosion took place about 20 minutes later. “Fire fighters were evacuated after the second explosion.”
The blaze was fought over the course of six to eight hours, the fire chief explained. “They dealt with a wide range of chemicals,” he said, as the facility uses various chemicals to make cosmetics and perfumes. “There was concern over exposure.”
The Orange County Office of Emergency Management advised neighbors to keep their windows closed, issuing a shelter-in-place directive for nearby residents and schools.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation was on the scene to perform air-quality monitoring and testing of runoff water, Sweeney said. “At the time, they said there was no issues with the runoff to the water supply,” the fire chief said.
Sweeney said the fire was extinguished with fire foam that did not contain the chemical PFOS, found to have contaminated the City of Newburgh water supply at Washington Lake last year.
“We used a state foam system,” Sweeney said.
It is possible the explosion was caused by faulty machinery, mechanical problems or simply due to human error, Sweeney said. He said he was unsure when the county Division of Fire Services would issue its final report on the fire.
“The whole thing was a terrible tragedy,” Town of New Windsor Supervisor George Green said Monday. “We’re making every effort we can to make sure that side of the building is reopened.”
More than 200 people are employed at the facility, he said. “We just want to see those employees back to work,” Green said “It’s a terrible time of year to have to have that many employees out of work.”
Central Hudson Gas and Electric Corp. was at the facility to restore service Monday, said Green, and water service had already been restored to the building.
The company has been cited for dozens of safety violations by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration in recent years. Most were classified as “serious,” involving flammable and combustible liquids, availability of first aid, and face and respiratory protections. The current violations have resulted in fines of more than $40,000. According to the Verla International website, the company has been in business since 1980.
Governor Andrew Cuomo said an investigation into overall compliance at Verla International will be led by the DEC, the Department of Labor and the Department of State.
“Worker safety and environmental protection are top priorities and if there was any misconduct or negligence that led to this incident, we will use the full force of the law to hold the company accountable,” Cuomo said in a statement last week.
More than 100 firefighters from various fire departments responded to the scene, including crews from Vails Gate, City of Newburgh, Cornwall-on-Hudson, New Windsor, Goodwill, Coldenham and Salisbury Mills.
By SHANTAL RILEY