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Lexington County firefighters respond to assist Calhoun County after longtime employee killed, and t

Sandy Run, SC – Lexington County firefighters responded with equipment and personnel to assist Calhoun County Emergency Services at the DAK Americas plant after an industrial accident killed one and seriously burned two other employees Tuesday afternoon. DAK Americas, previously known for many years as Eastman Kodak’s Carolina Eastman plant, is located within a few hundred yards of Lexington County off Hwy. 21 near I-26 in northwest Calhoun County.

Emergency centers began receiving calls just before 2:00 p.m. Tuesday reporting that several employees had been seriously burned in an accident at the plant that sits along the Congaree river. The facility has its own fire brigade and EMS personnel but additional resources were summoned while the scope of the emergency was being assessed.

According to sources from within the plant, an experienced maintenance crew was working on a pump that is a part of their polymer process when an accident occurred. Hot molten material, described as “wax-like” sprayed onto the three employees severely burning them.

Alton Zeigler, 63, a resident of Columbia and a longtime employee of the facility, was pronounced dead as a result of the accident. Calhoun County’s Coroner Donnie Porth was on the scene Tuesday afternoon taking part in the initial investigation into the death. He released Zeigler’s name to the media after his family was notified of his death.

The two other employees who were working with Zeigler at the time were seriously burned. They were transported to Palmetto Richland’s Trauma Center before later being transferred to the Southeastern Burn Institute in Augusta, Georgia.

Sources that we spoke with said the men had been wearing their protective gear, suits that have an aluminized exterior to protect them from intense heat, just prior to the accident. They reportedly removed the suits after isolating the pump they were working on. This isolation procedure should have made the pump safe. At some point, something happened that caused hot polymer backed up in the piping to spew out of the equipment onto them.

Alton Zeigler, the employee who was killed, was described by others as a true friend and an excellent employee. He had been at the facility for a number of years and had worked in maintenance and served as a member of the plants fire brigade for some time.

DAK employees have always been a tight-knit group that often acted more like a large family than employees of a company. Many have worked there for decades and live close by in surrounding areas of both Calhoun, Lexington County, Orangeburg, and Richland Counties. The company has a large employee recreation area and often had company picnics and other functions that included their employee’s families.

The DAK Americas plant makes PET, or plastic resin pellets, that area used to make soda and water bottles among other things. The plant was bought by DAK from Eastman’s chemical division in 2011.

DAK is a company based out of Monterey, Mexico. It claims to be one of the largest manufacturer of PET resins in the world. Its American operations are headquartered in Charlotte, NC.

When the plant was originally built by Eastman Kodak in the 1960’s, it was in such a rural area that it was much like a small city in its own right. It had its own credit union, fire department, ambulance service, security officers, and other services that made working there more comfortable, safe, and convenient for its employees.

The management always worked hard to try and be good neighbors to the few citizens who’s land and homes border the giant facility. Often, wildlife like deer and turkey would wander the property confident that they were safe and happy with the sharing arrangement they had with the industry. Fishermen were often seen pulling white perch, catfish, and other fish from the canal that fed water into the plant or from the small stream that returned the cleaned, post-process water to the Congaree River.

For many years, the Eastman facility was Calhoun County’s largest taxpayer. Even though it paid its taxes annually, it also lent its resources to community organizations like the local volunteer fire department and other projects its employees championed.

Carolina Eastman’s sister plant, Tennessee Eastman, is located in Kingsport, Tennessee. Carolina Eastman employees who gained status with the firm through hard-work, often advanced to management positions.

For them, one of the highlights of their employment was flying back and forth between the two plants for meetings or training on the company’s corporate jet.

After Tuesday’s accident, a spokesman for the company said that the incident was the worst the company had ever faced. Even after DAK bought the plant from Eastman, many of the original employees remained.

DAK management brought in grief counselors Tuesday evening to try and help other employees and their families deal with the devastating effects of the loss of their co-worker.

Government investigators were converging on the facility late Tuesday to begin the process of determining exactly what had occurred that caused the injuries and death. A spokesman for the plant has said that they will fully cooperate with the investigators to determine what happened.

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Call Paul Kirby

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