Semtex plant explosion: 4 missing, 7 injured

Four people are missing after an explosion at the factory that produces the plastic explosive Semtex; at least seven people were injured.

Tom Jones | 20.04.2011

Four people are missing, presumed buried in debris, following a powerful blast early on Wednesday morning in the Semtín, Pardubice region at the Explosia factory — famous for producing the plastic explosive Semtex. Seven people have been treated for injuries sustained in the blast, mostly from flying glass.

“We don’t yet know the details about the explosion, but four of our employees are missing. Currently, we’re assessing the extent of the damage,” Jaroslava Doležalová, a spokeswoman for the company Synthesia, which owns the Explosia factory, told the server Aktualně.cz. ‘The wave from the blast was so strong that it shook our entire apartment. We thought it had happened somewhere just around the corner’         

The blast occurred at 6:45 a.m. on Wednesday morning. As of 11:00 a.m., a team of dog handlers that arrived at the scene still had not begun searching for the missing employees as emergency services had warned there was a risk of a further explosion.

The blast destroyed a part of the Explosia factory’s production plant measuring roughly 10 by 10 meters, Vendula Horáková, spokeswoman for the Pardubice region fire brigade, told Czech Television (ČT). She said that the blast is thought to have been caused by nitroglycerine — an odorless, highly-explosive and volatile substance used in the manufacture of dynamite and plastic explosives — but that no toxic gases had been detected in the air around the plant. 

Although there are no reports of people outside the plant sustaining injuries, the blast was felt up to 10 kilometers away and the windows of two shops nearby were shattered. Photos taken by local residents show a large plume of smoke rising from the factory.

“The wave from the blast was so strong that it shook our entire apartment. We thought it had happened somewhere just around the corner,” a resident of Lázní Bohdaneč, some four kilometers from Smetín, was quoted as saying daily Lidovské noviny.     

The Explosia factory’s staff were strictly forbidden from speaking with journalists, Aktualně.cz reported, but an employee who agreed to speak to the news server said the blast was probably caused by human error. “Judging by the location of the explosion, it was most probably caused by a mistake when mixing nitrocellulose with nitroglycerine. It was most likely human error — the failure to observe basic safety rules,” said the employee, who wished to remain anonymous.       

Not the first time

Wednesday’s blast at the Explosia plant was not the first. On May 28, 1984, gunpowder in storage exploded killing five people and injuring almost 200. The blast left a large crater in the ground where the storage warehouse stood; nearby buildings were damaged and the wave of the blast broke windows up to 20 kilometers away. The gunpowder combusted when a truck scrapped against a loading ramp causing sparks.    

Founded in 1920, the Explosia’s factory is famous for the production of the odorless plastic explosive semtex, which was developed there in the 1960s and named after the village of Samtín where the plant is located.

Semtex was supplied to communist North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The explosive gained international notoriety after it was used to blow up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988. The Czechoslovak state arms trader Omnipol sold around 700 tons of semtex to Libya from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s. The explosive was used in several bomb attacks by the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Following the fall of the Iron Curtain, Explosia committed to adding detectable substances to all semtex produced. Explosia says that semetex now accounts for only a small percentage of the company’s output.    

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