A fire involving leaking hydrogen gas occurred at the GKN/Hoeganaes Corp. plant in Gallatin, TN, late last week, fatally burning two workers and leaving a third in critical condition, officials said this week.

The cause of the fire remains unknown, according to members of a team from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigating the incident. They also said they don’t know whether combustible iron dust blamed for two explosions at the plant earlier this year had a role in the latest incident. The first of those incidents, on Jan. 31, resulted in two other deaths.

The two workers fatally injured in the blast at 6:30 a.m. last Friday died within hours of each other this week in the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Burn Unit.

Rick Lester of Hendersonville died at 8:29 a.m. Wednesday, and Eric Hulsey of Orlinda died at 5:29 p.m. Tuesday.

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The third victim, Fred Tuttle of Gallatin, is in critical but stable condition at Vanderbilt. Two other injured workers underwent treatment at a Gallatin hospital.

Production has not resumed at the plant, and the federal investigators said they were still trying to determine whether the area where the blast occurred was safe even for them to enter.

“We believe there was a fire involving a leak of hydrogen,” said Daniel B. Horowitz, managing director of the safety board, which investigates accidents in the nation’s chemical plants and makes recommendations for changes to prevent such incidents in the future.

Investigators are looking at the pipes that carry hydrogen into the area of Friday’s fire, which was only about 100 feet from the site of the January explosion, said Johnnie Banks, the lead investigator for the safety board.

“In the course of our investigation, we observed piping that transports hydrogen to the area, along with other piping and metal dust,” he said. “We’re going to be as thorough as we possibly can.”

But the team is not ready to rule out the possibility that the metal dust, which is the product produced by the plant, might have been present in the air in a concentration high enough to cause a flash fire like those that occurred in January and March, Banks said.

In a report released two weeks before Friday’s fire, the safety board blamed dust for the earlier accidents and criticized the plant’s housekeeping and dust-control practices.

The safety board had been to the plant two times since the January accident and had “observed that there was an increased effort to eliminate the dust,” Banks said.

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