Few of us living here on February 7th, 2008 will soon forget what we were doing that night when a deadly blast ripped through the Imperial Sugar refinery, killing 14 people.
I was at the Live Oaks Public Library Foundation’s annual gala at the Bull Street Library, enjoying hors d’oeuvres and cocktails, when I got the word to roll.
Our television screens – and it was still mostly television then – soon would be filled with images of burning rubble, emergency vehicles and talk of dust that explodes.
Eight years later, it’s easy to think that we know what happened, that the story has been told. But I can say, you don’t know the story until you’ve read “Deadly Dust.”
A new book by the late political reporter Larry Peterson, the paperback reads like nothing he ever wrote on the subject. Definitive and engaging, it will become part of our history.
“He thought that the story needed to be told more fully,” says his widow, Lanie Peterson. “He cared very much that people had to suffer.”
Published by Black Rose Writing, “Deadly Dust” immerses you quickly in the horror of that industrial coffin in Port Wentworth. The first chapter is hard to read.
Eyewitnesses describe harrowing accounts of escapes through dark passages, bodies on fire and ordinary choices that determined life and death. Heroes and villains emerge.
And Larry pulls no punches about who he thinks is responsible. He says Imperial Sugar was probably guilty of manslaughter and its CEO John Sheptor at least guilty of perjury.
“He’s a chemical engineer with years of experience,” Lanie says of Sheptor, who escaped prosecution. “He testified under oath that he didn’t know sugar dust was combustible.”
Federal officials fined the company $6 million for workplace safety violations. But that figure pales in comparison with the golden parachutes and legal fees the fire produced.
Corporate whistleblower Graham Graham also proves an interesting character in print. A sharp-worded feather-ruffler who foresaw safety dangers, he called the plant a “shithole.”
I couldn’t use those words on the radio. But again, there’s a lot in “Deadly Dust” that no media outlet, not even the Morning News (Lanie also writes for them), has space for.
Larry goes into the weeds of sugar production. It’s briefly tedious, but important. He also explains the complicated legal and political abyss. The hair and makeup are frightening.
“US Sen. Saxby Chambliss received $131,000 in money from the sugar industry,” Lanie says. “And [he] berated Graham when Graham was testifying before his subcommittee.”
Eight years later, neither Congress nor Obama’s Labor Department has taken any action on combustible dust regulations. It’s our own shameful lesson about money in politics.
Larry wrote about money in politics as passionately as he rooted for his college football teams, including Southern California. So this was his season, in sports and in politics.
I and many others wish he were still here to write and root, surf and photo. The reporter died of cancer in 2014. He had finished the book but didn’t have a publisher at the time.
“He was expecting to be there when the marketing was done,” Lanie says. “But he got very sick, very quickly.” We can thank his agent, Janice Shay, for pushing the work out.
And we can thank Lanie for being the face of “Deadly Dust” in Larry’s absence since the Imperial Sugar story is still relevant, viscerally shocking and in constant need of retelling.
It’s a consummate reporter’s magum opus, a cautionary tale and a journo-school text in one. “I’m very proud of Larry for writing this book,” she says. “He’s alive in this book.”
The book is available at The Book Lady Bookstore, E Shaver Bookseller and Amazon.
Lanie Peterson will speak and sign copies of the book at The Book Lady Bookstore, 6 East Liberty Street, on Saturday, October 1st from 12-2pm.