Authorities are slowly moving some of the 6 million pounds of explosives improperly stored at a munitions recycling facility because they feared a chain reaction blast could have spread through corridors packed with explosive materials, the sheriff of the threatened area said Tuesday.
A voluntary evacuation order for Doyline, a town of 800 people near the site and about 25 miles east of Shreveport, was expected to remain in effect until at least Friday while the material was moved to a safer location elsewhere on the sprawling Camp Minden grounds.
Webster Parish Sheriff Gary Sexton said Tuesday that the buildings operated by Explo Systems Inc. are several hundred yards apart but connected by above-ground corridors wide enough for a fork lift to shuttle materials between them.
He said state police who discovered the storage problems found the corridors stuffed with explosives, including a propellant called M6 that is used in artillery shells.
"We were concerned that an ignition in one building would spread from building to building," he said.
Dozens of workers at the Explo site were cautiously moving the materials to safe bunkers located on the former Army base. Officials were watching the weather, and would halt work if thunderstorms threatened. One of the corridors had been cleared by Tuesday, Sexton said.
The evacuation was requested over the weekend because authorities were unsure what would happen if the explosives were ignited.
"If you did have something go bump in the night, whether a fire, explosion or gigantic roman candle, we don't know what would happen and the professionals don't either," Sexton said.
Sexton said authorities have not been able to contact the owners of Explo Systems, who are thought to be returning from overseas, but are working with an on-site manager.
"The everyday workers with the company have been extremely good," Sexton said. "They are working to segregate the product for movement. But no one has had any luck contacting the higher officials of the company," he said.
Repeated phone calls by The Associated Press to company officials seeking comment have not been returned
Site work is being directed by the state police, who have opened an investigation into why the materials were stored improperly.
Sexton, who inspected the site Monday night, said the storage buildings appear to be about 10,000 square feet in size, with 14-16 foot ceilings. He said the amount of material stored in them — in plastic bags and cardboard boxes — varies.
Authorities were limiting access to Doyline, though many residents had returned and there were signs of life. Police were urging them to stay off the streets.
Sexton said a trio of burglars apparently thought they could take advantage of the evacuation and attempted to break into the home of an elderly couple just outside the city limits early Saturday.
When they tried to break into a rear window, the 77-year-old woman shot one with a .44-caliber handgun. Sexton said the injured suspect was hospitalized in critical condition and the other two suspects were arrested. He did not have their identities.
"She dropped the hammer on one of them. One is fighting for his life," said Sexton, 59, who is in his third term as sheriff. He said deputies were on the watch for others trying to take advantage of the evacuation.
The town was previously evacuated in 2006 after the explosion of different material at Camp Minden, a former military base now owned by the state of Louisiana and leased out as an industrial park.