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2 dead after ‘ground shaking’ explosion in Waukegan, 2 still missing

AB Specialty Silicones in Waukegan after Friday night's explosion. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

Josette Jones was watching television Friday night when she heard a loud bang that caused her Waukegan home to start shaking.

After a few minutes of trying to figure out what caused the disruption — which was so strong and so close that Jones thought a car had crashed into her house — she realized something more serious had happened.

About 1 1/2 miles down the road, a massive explosion had leveled AB Specialty Silicones chemical plant, likely killing four workers, including 29-year-old Allen Stevens, and injuring three others, authorities said.

“The feeling was kind of indescribable,” Jones said Saturday afternoon at the scene of the demolished plant at Sunset and Northwestern avenues. “The house was moving and the windows were rattling and all of a sudden the lights were going off and on.”

Jones left her house after she saw initial news reports of the explosion, only to find streets shut down with police and fire sirens echoing through the northern town that sits near the Wisconsin border, about 40 miles north of downtown Chicago.

Jones ended up at a gas station several blocks down Sunset Avenue, where dozens packed the parking lot to get a glimpse of the burning building.

“All of the lights were off — there was a blackout within that radius,” Jones said. “It was a very eerie feeling.”

Emergency crews from around the area worked through the night after the first firefighters on scene were “quickly overwhelmed” by the massive blaze, according to Waukegan Fire Marshal Steve Lenzi.

By the morning, crews recovered the body of one still unidentified employee who went missing after the explosion, officials said.

Another employee, Stevens, died just before noon at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office. Stevens, of Salem, Wisconsin, was one of four employees who were taken to hospitals Friday night.

AB Specialty Silicones in Waukegan after Friday night’s explosion. | Nader Issa for the Sun-Times
AB Specialty Silicones in Waukegan after Friday night’s explosion. | Nader Issa for the Sun-Times

Two additional workers were still missing Saturday evening and believed to be buried in the wreckage, according to Lenzi. Authorities searched for their bodies with the help of heavy equipment Saturday afternoon after suspending efforts for several hours because the structural instability at the facility made conditions too dangerous for firefighters.

Lenzi said the search ended for the day about 8 p.m. and would resume Sunday morning.

What remained of the plant Saturday looked like a wreckage scene from an apocalyptic movie. Debris littered a grassy field next to the plant and reached areas across the street and down the block.

“It’s just a slow-going process. Right now we’re trying to go through piece by piece, literally, go through the building and try to make sure we uncover everything,” Lake County coroner Howard Cooper said at the scene Saturday evening. “We do believe we know where they are, and that’s where we’re in the process of searching right now.”

Cooper said his office would perform autopsies Monday on the three bodies trapped in the wreckage, presuming the remaining two are located by then. Dental records will be key to confirming the victims’ identities given the severity of the injuries, Cooper said. The fourth victim, Stevens, would be handled by Cook County since he died at Loyola.

Mac Penman, general manager of AB Specialty Silicones, wrote in a statement Saturday evening that he was “shocked and heartbroken by the tragedy that occurred in our plant last night.”

More than 100 emergency personnel — including the Illinois EPA and many local Lake County fire departments — worked the scene of the explosion, which damaged at least five other buildings for an estimated loss of at least $1 million, according to a statement from the fire department.

Carlos Lebron, whose fiancee works at AB Specialty Silicones, was among the group watching recovery efforts Saturday in a parking lot across from the building.

Lebron said his fiancee had worked during the day Friday and came home just hours before the explosion.

“She’s first shift. That was second shift,” Lebron said. “For her, it’s hard. We don’t know who we lost. It’s scary.”

“It’s the what if — What if it was you, what if that was me,” Lebron said. “I drive down this road, I could’ve been at this stoplight. Or my fiancee. Or my kids. Or you.”

Contributing: Sam Kelly

Authorities responded to an explosion on Sunset Avenue in Waukegan on May 3, 2019. | Lake County Passage
Authorities responded to an explosion on Sunset Avenue in Waukegan on May 3, 2019. | Lake County Passage
An explosion shook the ground in Waukegan on Sunset Avenue on May 3, 2019. | Lake County Passage
An explosion shook the ground in Waukegan on Sunset Avenue on May 3, 2019. | Lake County Passage