REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Team Redstone lost two of its own May 5 when a highly volatile chemical exploded during demilitarization processes at Test Area 10.

The two Army contractors were identified as Jerry A. Grimes, 58, of Hartselle; and James R. Hawke, 53, of Hazel Green. Both sustained severe burns in the explosion and died in the evening hours of May 5 at the burn center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital. They were employed by locally based Amtec Corp.

A memorial fund has been set up at Redstone Federal Credit Union for the benefit of the surviving spouses and their families. Donations may be made at any RFCU branch location by referencing the Jerry A. Grimes Memorial Fund and the James R. Hawke Memorial Fund. RFCU tellers can handle single donations divided between the funds in accordance with donor instructions.

A third contractor was located in a control center about 500 yards from the building at the time of the explosion. He was uninjured.

Arsenal leaders, including Aviation and Missile Command and Redstone Arsenal commander Maj. Gen. Jim Myles and Garrison commander Col. Bob Pastorelli, both expressed sorrow for the loss of the two contractors and condolences to their families, and a commitment to investigate the explosion, determine its cause and work to prevent future incidents.

The contractors worked for the Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center, which supports research and development efforts for several Arsenal organizations, including AMCOM.

"We who are a part of Team Redstone share a close bond," Myles said. "When one of our own is hurt it affects us all. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family members and friends of those who passed away."

The contractors involved in the accident had "25 to 30 years of experience, and were very familiar with standard operating procedures and risk assessments," said Paul Turner, AMRDEC's associate director for propulsion and structures directorate, at a May 5 press conference a couple hours after the explosion.

"They are great Americans. Each and everything they do each and every day is for the war fighter. Even though they are civilians, their contribution to the American war fighter is immeasurable," he said.

At the press conference held near the explosion site - the remotely located AMRDEC building 7352 at Test Area 10 in the Arsenal's southeastern section near Gate 3 - post officials said the explosion posed no safety or health concerns for the environment, and emphasized safety measures that are taken to prevent explosions during demilitarization processes involving ammonium perchlorate, an oxidizer used in solid rocket motors.

The explosion occurred at about 8:45 a.m. May 5. Four Arsenal fire engine companies responded.

"Our first company on the scene confirmed smoke and fire, and that we had injuries. They treated the injuries and called Med-Flight," Redstone fire chief Troy Vest said.

The engine companies followed "normal firefighting operations" to extinguish the fire and then began "checking for hazardous materials and monitoring the area," he said.

Garrison commander Pastorelli said working with volatile chemicals is "high-risk and dangerous at times," but that Arsenal employees work to minimize dangers by following all safety regulations and frequently undergoing safety training.

"We take safety as priority No. 1," Pastorelli said. "I have total trust, faith and confidence" in employees and the regulations they follow in their work.

Building 7352 recently passed a safety inspection. Built 15 years ago and modified since then, it is an 18,000 to 20,000-square-foot ammonium demilitarization facility. It is designed specifically to minimize the impact of possible explosions.

"The blast went up and out. It did what it needed to do," Pastorelli said. "The metal sidings were blown away."

AMRDEC's Turner said the building has "redundant safety systems in place."

He also said the explosion posed no environmental hazards. "The vacuum systems came on and sucked the dangerous gases away," he said.

Turner said the employees were working on demilitarization operations.

"We do several different operations here involving propellant explosives during processing and testing ... This is an inherently dangerous operation. They were working with chemical compounds that are dangerous," he said. "They were breaking chemical constituents down and in that process they become more volatile than they are."

The chemical - ammonium perchlorate - has, in the past, been disposed of in open burns. But as part of the Army's "go-green" initiative, technology is being used to recycle some chemicals that would otherwise be hazardous.

The contractors were working on a process that recycles ammonium perchlorate and other compounds from solid rocket propellant, which is a final step in the lifecycle of a system, said Merv Brokke, AMRDEC's public affairs specialist. The process is better for the environment and will reduce storage requirements, Brokke said.

One example of long-term storage concerns is the Spartan Rocket first-stage
motors that were once stored at the Anniston Army Depot. About a year ago, 26 first-stage motors were incinerated at Anniston, with one being destroyed each week.

In the future, processes like the one being conducted in building 7352 will help remove systems from the Army inventory in a more cost-effective and environmentally-friendly manner, and will help to preclude burning rocket motors containing propellant, Brokke said.

"Part of what we were doing here was trying to determine ... can we capture, reprocess it (ammonium perchlorate) and use it for propellant as opposed to being an environmental hazard," Turner said.

"There are several operations to reduce it down. Most are done remotely. There are times when operators have to go in and change the process ... We don't know where in the process they were. That will be part of our investigation."

The procedure to separate rocket fuel components occurs about 10 to 12 times a year at Redstone Arsenal. The operations will be suspended until the accident is fully investigated, Turner said.

Turner, who himself sustained permanent injuries in a chemical explosion about 10 years ago, said of that experience that "we did everything right. But these things do happen. We will conduct an investigation (of the May 5 accident) so that we can put any safety recommendations back into our processes."

The explosion is a Class A incident that will involve investigators from Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, FBI and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration along with Arsenal investigators.

"We will get the best of the best to determine what happened so we can be sure this doesn't happen again," Turner said.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16