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No cause identified in fatal Colebrook explosions

Firefighters work to put out the fire caused by explosions at MDM Industries in Colebrook on Friday that killed two workers, and shook the entire town. (Photo by Melissa Grima) (click for larger version)
May 19, 2010
COLEBROOK A series of explosions rocked downtown Colebrook on Friday afternoon, killing two workers, injuring a third, and causing the evacuation of homes in the immediate area. Jesse Kennett, 49, of Stratford and Donald Kendall, 56, of Colebrook, employees at MDM-Black Mag Industries were both killed in the blast (full obituaries on page A2). The name of the third man, who was injured but made it out alive, has not been released.

The explosions began at around 1:30 p.m. on May 14, in the Colebrook Industrial Park Building on Gould Street, known locally as the old Manchester Manufacturing building, where MDM had recently begun its operations making muzzle-loader cartridges out of synthetic black powder. According to State Fire Investigator Charlie Chalk, synthetic black powder is less explosive than traditional gun powder. The cause of the blast remains under investigation.

"I've never heard anything like it in my life," said Butch Ladd, who works just up the street from the plant at the Colebrook News and Sentinel. Witnesses recount two massive explosions that shook the entire downtown area and had people rushing into the streets for fear that something had struck their buildings. The local school was locked down and homes around the area of the explosion were evacuated. The smell of gunpowder pervaded the air in the town as a plume of grew smoke rose from the site.

MDM is owned locally by Craig Sanborn of Maidstone, Vt., and began operating in Colebrook last year, with the help of a federal Economic Development Administration grant of $170,000, according to published reports in the Colebrook News and Sentinel.

In addition to housing the munitions manufacturer, the large industrial complex was also home to the River of Life Church, as well as Codet Manufacturing and some storage areas. Reports indicate that those businesses were unoccupied at the time of the blasts.

"It felt like a boom," said one Bridge Street worker, who asked not to be identified. She also said that she had spoken to two men who had been working on a car in the storage area of the industrial building when the explosions began, and they recounted how the blast blew the fire door shut and prompted their speedy evacuation.

The conflagration from the munitions blew out the rear of the building and part of the wall facing the town's transfer station. Two large explosions were followed by a series of smaller ones that kept the firefighters at bay for nearly two hours, according to Mia West, acting public information officer for the town. Crews from Beecher Falls, Colebrook and Pittsburg were on scene, and by 3:30 p.m. water poured down onto the roof of the building from a tower truck.

Fire investigators could be seen extending their blast zone as they discovered charred building materials 500-700 yards away from the building on Friday afternoon. The Colebrook News and Sentinel reports that debris was found as far as a mile north of town.

The incident drew a massive response to the small town, located just 10 miles from the Canadian Border. State Police, Border Patrol, Cos County Sheriff's Department, Fish and Game, and the State Fire Marshal's office were on scene. The News and Sentinel reports that the Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol and Firearms, as well as Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have both joined the investigation as well.

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