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Peterborough ball bearing plant explosion injures at least 15

At least 15 New Hampshire Ball Bearings employees were transported to Monadnock Community Hospital yesterday afternoon after a massive blast tore through the manufacturing plant’s first floor.

Hospital spokesman Phil McFarland said two of the injured patients had been transported by helicopter to other facilities. McFarland was unable to provide information on the type of injuries suffered.

Kathy Gerrity, a NHBB spokeswoman at the company’s headquarters in Chatsworth, Calif., said none of the injuries was life-threatening.

Peterborough fire Chief Joseph Lenox said the first call about the incident came in at 3:57 p.m.

“By five or six minutes later, we knew we had a pretty serious situation,” Lenox said. “We had no fire. The first companies reported heavy smoke coming from the back of the building.”

Multiple windows were blown out on the bottom floor of the east side of the building, which faces Route 202.

“There was extensive damage inside,” Lenox said.

Peterborough firefighter Jim Grant said the explosion was quickly upgraded to a four-alarm incident given the extent of the damage and the number of people working in the building. Grant said workers at Staff Development for Educators felt the vibration from the explosion. SDE is about a half-mile from the NHBB plant.

Crews from Peterborough, Rindge, Dublin, Hancock and Bennington were among the first to respond, along with police officers from Peterborough and nearby towns.

Life flight helicopters were called in from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center to stand by at Monadnock Community Hospital.

Eric Bowman, the fire department’s public information officer, said firefighters started decontamination precautions immediately.

“We knew it probably had something to do with hazardous chemicals,” Bowman said. A hazardous materials team from the Keene Police Department was also called in.

“They will be preparing to make entry pretty soon,” Bowman said, noting that it’s standard procedure for an industrial incident to assume hazardous materials may be present.

Bowman said about 100 fire and rescue personnel were at the scene from towns as far away as Milford, Hillsboro and Keene. Bowman said a state emergency response team was at the site.

“We don’t know a cause. We’re investigating,” he said.

Asked whether there was any sign of malicious intent related to the explosion, Bowman said, “We don’t believe so. We haven’t gotten in to do any investigation, but the investigation will be carried out by Peterborough Fire Department, the state fire marshal’s office and ATF.”

Bowman said the building would remain closed until it was deemed safe to re-enter. Employees were evacuated from the building as a staging area was set up in the NHBB parking lot. Workers gathered in the lot, some wrapped in blankets from cars, after leaving the building without coats. No employees were allowed to leave in the immediate aftermath of the explosion while a headcount was conducted, but they had to stay in the lot regardless because fire trucks and ambulances were using the entrance.

“I was working at my bench when the drywall just blew toward me,” said Wayne Zawadowicz, who works in the press room on the first floor. “I hit the deck between the benches, heard a poof and an orange flame went right over my head.”

Zawadowicz wasn’t injured, but he said he heard screaming farther down the floor and believed a couple of people may have been burned.

Danielle Drouin was on the second floor of the business when the explosion happened. The floor shook so badly that some ceiling tiles fell. “I thought it was an earthquake,” she said.

Drouin said she had seen some people who were injured, but did not know how many.

NHBB worker John Kelly said he felt the explosion before he heard it.

“It started as a gentle rolling, then the whole building shook,” Kelly said. “We got out and we could see damage down the hall. It blew debris right across the parking lot.”

Standing in the parking lot, wrapped in a blanket, Denise Hartwell said she was still shaken by the scare.

“I’m all riled up,” she said. ‘They want me to get warm in a car but I just can’t sit. I was just sitting at my desk when all the tiles started coming down. I got up and ran. I’ve been here 32 years and never seen anything like this.”

Several ConVal School District buses were driven to the plant so NHBB workers could get out of the cold.

Bowman said area residents had been stopping by to offer food and shelter, which was much appreciated.

Gov. Maggie Hassan issued the following statement late yesterday afternoon: “While we are still gathering details about the explosion, we are very encouraged to hear that all employees have been accounted for. The state has activated our Emergency Operations Center in order to better coordinate state resources and we stand ready to provide any assistance needed to local first responders.”

(Ledger-Transcript reporter Lindsey Arceci contributed to this report.)


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