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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

2 Men Hurt in Blast at Moorpark Plant

Accident: One worker is in critical condition in the latest explosion involving a chemical used to make air bag igniters.

September 02, 2000|MARGARET TALEV and ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MOORPARK — Two workers were injured, one critically, in an explosion Friday morning at a company that makes triggering devices for air bags, the latest in a series of blasts at the firm.

The explosion occurred about 10:50 a.m. at Special Devices Inc. at 14370 White Sage Road, while workers were assembling air bag igniters.

Since 1982, two employees have been killed and seven injured in industrial accidents at Special Devices, which moved in late 1998 from Santa Clarita to a hillside complex at the east end of Moorpark, according to Cal/OSHA records.

In April of this year, a Special Devices employee was killed and another injured in an explosion at a complex in Hollister, southeast of San Jose, where the company runs a production line.

"This company has experienced explosions that have been fatal, involving the same chemical," said Dean Fryer, a spokesman for Cal/OSHA. "So, we will definitely take that into consideration while we are looking at possible citations for this incident."

Frank Snider, 26, of Simi Valley was taken by helicopter to Simi Valley Hospital, where he was in critical but stable condition after surgery for cuts in his chin, nose, forearms and ankle after Friday's explosion, hospital authorities said.

Jeremiah Calixtro, 32, of Moorpark was taken by ambulance to Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, where he underwent surgery for a deep abrasion on his right hand.

Calixtro and Snider are machine operators and have been working at Special Devices for just a few months. Calixtro started in May, and Snider began in June.

Shortly after the explosion, about 30 firefighters, Ventura County sheriff's deputies and hazardous materials employees arrived at the scene. The company shut down production in one of its buildings and evacuated about 150 workers from the production area and surrounding offices, authorities said.

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Many of the workers, who were wearing blue lab coats, appeared somber as they left the modern, two-story building. All but one declined to be interviewed.

A 23-year-old employee, who refused to give his name, said he did not hear the explosion but was told about it. "We don't know what happened," he said. "We're just concerned for the employees."

Fryer said state safety officials were notified at 11:20 a.m. and immediately sent a representative to begin the investigation.

The cause had not been determined late Friday, but authorities said it involved zirconium potassium perchlorate, a powerful explosive powder.

The men were loading the chemical into a machine that inserts it into the air bag trigger, officials said. They were both wearing protective gear and were separated from the machine by plexiglass.

"This is a highly volatile and often unstable chemical that, if not handled correctly, can be extremely hazardous," Fryer said.

The hazardous materials team spent Friday afternoon removing the powder and cleaning up the production area, said Joe Luna, a spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department.

"We're taking it step by step," Luna said. "It is a very tedious process because of safety concerns."

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Special Devices Inc., which manufactures initiators and pyrotechnic devices for the automobile and aerospace industries, has about 700 employees at its Moorpark headquarters. In 1990, after slowdowns in the aerospace industry, the company adapted its technology for use in air bags. By 1997, its profits had increased fivefold.

In December 1998, the aerospace division moved to Moorpark; the automotive division moved in late spring, 1999.

Special Devices has had a string of industrial accidents over the last two decades, nearly all involving zirconium potassium perchlorate. In March 1982, a worker was killed when sparks from a space heater ignited chemicals. In October 1993, a chemist lost part of his hand in an explosion.

In April 1996, two men were hospitalized after an explosion. And in February 1999, one man was killed and two others were injured while chemicals were being transported in a specially equipped truck.

In April, one man was killed and one injured during an explosion near the Hollister plant, where micro gas generators are manufactured.

Cal/OSHA has issued a few citations to Special Devices as a result of the explosions, including a fine for not equipping workers with appropriate tools to use when handling sensitive materials.

Special Devices spokesman Allan Mayer said the company is also conducting an investigation to determine the cause of Friday's explosion.

"If any procedure or training needs to be changed, you can be sure that will be done," Mayer said.

He added that he believes the company has a "very good safety record," and said it is committed to continuing that record. All employees undergo training, he said, and are tested on that training.

The company, which operates in three shifts around the clock, was expected to resume production Friday night, Mayer said.

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