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Paarl fire cause revealed: 13 killed in paper dust explosion

Added at 1:05pm, Friday May 29th 2009

The fire that killed 13 workers at the Paarl Print factory last month was probably caused by a paper dust explosion, an industry union said on Thursday.

"The uncontrolled spread of the fire which resulted in thirteen fatalities has been linked to a build up of highly combustible dust in the roof of the plant," said the Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers' Union (Ceppwawu).

All 13 workers were hospitalised before they died, some of them with second-degree burns.

The fire allegedly started in the cafeteria and spread throughout the building at great speed, too fast to allow some workers to escape.

Ceppwawu spokesperson Cedric Maluleke said the union has been working with a team of occupational health experts to establish the cause of the 17 April fire.

"On the basis of investigations to date, the union team has made a preliminary finding that the initial small fire in the cafeteria was propagated through the building by an ensuing dust explosion.

"This was fuelled by paper dust that had accumulated on the open rafters of the building and which had been raised into the air by the shockwave."

However, the union said still does not know what caused the initial fire in the cafeteria or how it triggered the dust explosion.

"The finding is a preliminary one and must be confirmed by further investigation.

"At this stage we are satisfied with the preliminary findings of the report that we have received from our team."

Dust explosions in industry were relatively rare as they were most often encountered in the coal mining industry and in the grain-handling and processing industries, he said.

Coal dust, grain dust and paper dust were inflammable and, when raised into the air, can explode.

Maluleke said alarms, fire prevention and control equipment failed to control the spread of the blaze.

Ablaze in less than a minute

Survivors interviewed by the team of investigators described a shockwave that preceded a wall of flame that travelled along the roof of the 300 metre-long building in a matter of seconds.

The flame ignited electrical conduits and turned the building into an inferno in less than a minute, said Maluleke.

The fire was the second this year at plants owned by Naspers subsidiary Paarl Media.

In February, a blaze destroyed a R200-million magazine printing press at Paarl Gravure in Cape Town's Montague Gardens, with no casualties.

Maluleke lashed out at management of Paarl Print and parent company Naspers, the police and the insurer's specialist fire investigators for dragging their feet in the investigations.

"Up until now no one has given any explanation for the fire that was labelled by management as mysterious."

He said this was extremely concerning for everyone affected, including the survivors and families of the deceased.

He said the union had proposed that further necessary investigations be carried out by a joint investigating committee, comprising of the union and management representatives.

"Ceppwawu believes that such a co-operative approach to the fire investigation is the best way to establishing precisely what happened, and to come up with recommendations that would prevent any recurrence."

Although he was hopeful that management would support the union's proposals regarding compensation of the dependants of the deceased workers and those who were injured, he said that job security for its members at Paarl Print was also a major concern.

"Building and equipment were almost completely destroyed.

"It could take many months before printing work can resume. We'll be engaging with management over this issue."

**This article originally appeared at iAfrica.com**

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