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NH Ball Bearings worker: Explosion 'was like an earthquake'

Staff and Correspondent Report
February 10. 2014 11:23PM
Peterborough Fire Chief Joe Lenox talks to the Peterborough town administrator at the scene of an explosion at New Hampshire Ball Bearings Monday afternoon. (MEGHAN PIERCE PHOTO)

PETERBOROUGH — Up to 15 New Hampshire Ball Bearings Inc. employees were confirmed hurt Monday afternoon when an explosion ripped through the bottom floor of the plant — blowing out windows, toppling heavy machines and causing pieces of the ceiling and overhead pipes to collapse on workers, the governor's spokesman and an employee who witnessed the incident said.

None of the injuries are believed to be life-threatening, according to an official at the company's main headquarters in California and Gov. Maggie Hassan's spokesman Marc P. Goldberg.

An estimated 400 to 450 employees were in the 175 Jaffrey Road plant when firefighters were called to an automatic alarm at 3:37 p.m. Eventually four alarms would be struck, and more than 100 firefighters would respond.

"It was like an earthquake," said one assembly line employee who was working on the second floor.

"The machines tipped over. It was complete chaos. Where I ran out, the whole ceiling collapsed. There was debris everywhere. I just ran out of there as fast as I could," added the female worker, who was not hurt and spoke on condition of anonymity.

"We don't know exactly what caused it. We know there was some flash or explosion that caused some injuries," said Hans Baker, a NHBB communications official.

Late Monday night, Peterborough fire officials said the building will be closed until it is deemed safe and structurally sound.

The explosion occurred on the first floor of the building, Baker said, where the ball bearings are manufactured. He said there is machinery and lab space on the first floor.

Connor Foley of Jaffrey was working in the assembly room on the second floor.

"I was inside and the floor lifted up probably a foot in the air and a lot of stuff in the room fell over and part of the ceiling caved in. It was pretty hairy," Foley said.

Brittany Bernier of Dublin was working on the other side of the assembly room.

"We have big washers that moved forward and a table split in half and the doors were broken," she said.

Many evacuated the building before they had their belongings, such as their cell phones, car keys or coats.

"A lot of us can't get in our cars and get home. The people in the assembly room suit up in blue and leave everything in our lockers and we couldn't stop to get it," Bernier said.

By 7 p.m., NHBB Vice President of Manufacturing Richard Bardellini had arrived to assess any structural damage.

"All indications are that it was an industrial-related incident," Peterborough fire officials said in a statement Monday night. The investigation is being carried out by the fire department, state Fire Marshal's Office and ATF. OSHA was on the scene as well.

Of the 15 employees confirmed to have suffered injuries, two were critically hurt and transported by medical helicopter from Monadnock Community Hospital — one to UMass Medical Center and the other to Massachusetts General. The state's Incident Planning and Emergency Operations Center in Concord opened shortly after 4 p.m. to respond to the incident, Goldberg said. Gov. Hassan was at the center with other state officials.

"My thoughts and prayers go out to those injured in today's explosion, to their families and loved ones, and to the entire Peterborough area where NH Ball Bearings is such an important member of the community. While we are still gathering details about the explosion, we are very encouraged to hear that all employees have been accounted for. The state has activated our Emergency Operations Center in order to better coordinate state resources and we stand ready to provide any assistance needed to local first responders," Hassan said in a statement.

Several members of the New Hampshire congressional delegation responded to the news of Monday's explosion at New Hampshire Ball Bearings in Peterborough.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, posted this comment on Twitter: "Praying for those at NH Ball Bearings in Peterborough & for first responders on the scene."

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, released this statement: "My thoughts and prayers are with everyone at New Hampshire Ball Bearings in Peterborough today. I am grateful for the first responders who are working at the scene, and as the situation unfolds, my staff and I remain ready to assist however we can."

Congresswoman Annie Kuster, D-NH, also released a statement: "My heart goes out to all those affected by today's explosion in Peterborough, and my thoughts and prayers are with them and their families as we pray for a swift recovery. I offer my sincere thanks to the heroic first responders whose quick response and brave actions helped avoid further injury on the scene of this horrific explosion."

Goldberg said a key concern facing local emergency response officials Tuesday was "making sure the location is fully safe and stable" and, he added, "indications are that it is."

The company employs more than 700 people at the Peterborough site.

Local fire officials and the state Fire Marshal's Office are investigating what caused the explosion. The extent of damage was not immediately known.

Kathy Gerrity, assistant to the president at New Hampshire Ball Bearings Inc. main offices in Chatsworth, Calif., could not estimate the extent of the damage to the building or what cause the explosion. She said all power had been shut off.

New Hampshire Ball Bearings manufactures precision bearings and complex bearing assemblies for the aerospace, defense, medical and high technology markets. Its products include miniature and instrument ball bearings, large ball and roller bearings for aircraft engines, according to the company's website.

It also produces specialized rod end and spherical bearings for diverse aircraft applications.

The company operates three manufacturing facilities in the United States and employs more than 1,500 workers.

Union Leader Correspondents Meghan Pierce and Nancy Bean Foster contributed to this report.

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