SANTA CLARITA — An explosion at a plant where automotive air-bag trigger devices are made killed one worker and injured two others Thursday morning, authorities said.
The Sheriff's Department identified the victim as Charles Tillman, 48, of Encino. His remains were found by firefighters near a pickup truck used to transport chemicals at Special Devices Inc.
"The body had been so badly torn apart that at first they could not tell the sex or race," said Deputy Cruz Solis of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The blast, which occurred shortly after 10 a.m. outside one of several buildings at the remote plant site, could be heard about two miles away, fire officials said.
The man's job was to transport volatile chemicals in the specially equipped truck to buildings at the plant, Solis said.
"They divide the work among several buildings," said a man familiar with the plant who did not want to be identified, "just in case there is this kind of accident with the explosives they use."
This was the second fatality caused by an explosion at Special Devices, located at 16830 West Placerita Canyon Road. In 1982, a worker who was hired to help reconstruct a building that had been damaged by an explosion five months earlier was killed when sparks from a space heater ignited chemicals.
Explosions at the plant in 1993 and 1996 resulted in serious injuries to workers.
The company is in the process of moving from the Santa Clarita plant to new facilities in a remote part of Moorpark in Ventura County. In 1996, when the move was being planned, then-company President Thomas Treinen said in an interview, "I absolutely think we're safer than any corner gas station."
A worker injured in Thursday's blast complained of ringing in his ears and was taken to a nearby hospital, said Inspector Henry Rodriguez, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
Another worker who had been cut on the head by flying debris from the blast was treated at the scene by paramedics, Rodriguez said.
The general manager of the company, Robert McSweeney, declined to speculate how the chemicals, which are packed in two-pound canisters, exploded. He said it had not been determined if the worker was loading or offloading the truck at the time of the accident.
Rodriguez said that firefighters, who arrived at the scene at about 10:15 a.m. to put out a fire from the blast, which damaged a single-story building, were told by company officials that the highly volatile chemical zirconium potassium perchlorate had probably been involved in the accident. That same chemical caused a 1993 explosion at Special Devices that resulted in a chemist losing part of his right hand.
Speaking to reporters, McSweeney said it had not yet been determined which chemicals had been on the truck.
"There are three to five different kinds of chemicals used [in devices] that cause air bags to inflate," he said.
California's occupational safety agency, Cal/OSHA, was called to the site to head the investigation, Solis said. Also involved were officials from the county coroner's office and the county Fire Department's hazardous-materials unit. By noon, most of the 500 workers at the plant had been evacuated.
According to records released by Cal/OSHA, the agency last inspected the Santa Clarita plant in the wake of the 1996 explosion that also involved zirconium potassium perchlorate. Two men were hospitalized due to injuries from that blast. The only citation the company received from OSHA was for not reporting the accident to the agency within eight hours as required.
After the 1993 explosion, OSHA cited the company for three "serious" infractions, including not having appropriate tools for workers to use in handling sensitive materials. The company was fined $8,150.
After the 1982 fatality, OSHA inspectors went to the plant but were turned away because company officials said the agency did not have the right to investigate. At that time, the vast majority of work produced by Special Devices was for the military, which had jurisdiction over safety matters in plants doing its contract work.
In 1990, after slowdowns in the aerospace industry, the company adapted its technology for use in air bags. Special Devices thrived, and by 1997 its profits had increased fivefold.
Late last year, the company was bought by closely held J.F. Lehman & Co. of New York.