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Pre-dawn blaze guts plastics factory; 200 jobs now uncertain

Fire destroys plastics factory in St Catherine

Sunday, January 20, 2013    

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ACRID grey smoke still spewed from the smouldering ruins of the massive warehouse at Omni Industries Limited and Flexpak compound in Twickenham Park, St Catherine way past midday yesterday after a ferocious fire ravaged it in the pre-dawn hours.

Jagged, scorched concrete walls jutted skywards from the now roofless building, the steel girders that once held it up reduced to a twisted mass of metal resting on the flooded floors like the skeleton of a giant, gutted beast. The metal had melted as the highly flammable plastics and other chemicals ignited and created extremely high temperatures inside.

Executives said the damage was an estimated $500 million, which, despite full insurance coverage, still means an uncertain future for the companies — formed out of the remnants of the Finsacengineered divestment of what was once Thermoplastics Jamaica Limited — the largest plastics manufacturers in the Caribbean.

There is still no indication as to how the fire started or where, but it took seven fire units to control the blaze which executives at the plastics manufacturing company said started around 3:00 am.

An employee on the night shift saw smoke and sounded an alarm.

No one was injured.

“This is the first we are experiencing anything like this,” said an obviously fatigued General Manager Noel Alcott.

“We have had nothing even near to this, never experienced a disaster of this magnitude, and certainly it will mean that a lot of planning will have to go into how we continue the business after this,” he said.

The depth of loss is not limited just to the physical buildings, the warehouse and the adjoining administrative department, but their contents.

“It was predominately polyethylene finished goods. So actually it’s not raw materials, it’s finished goods, so the conversion costs have been lost; and for the production department, we have lost all our extruders.”

One extruder, he said, will cost “a couple million” dollars to replace.

Extruders are machines used to melt plastic polymer into molten form and then convert them to certain shapes.

Huge, steaming blobs of melted plastic seemed to be all that was left, based on what could be seen through the doors of the structure. Fire personnel said cooling down operations could go on for at least another day.

“We have not been able to go inside the building to assess the physical structure, we are just looking in from the outside. We are not able to say how much of the equipment can be salvaged,” said Alcott.

Some of the 200 workers employed by the two companies watched as firefighters continued to pump gallons of water into the buildings, chatting among themselves in small groups on the compound and outside the gates, shock and worry apparent on some faces.

Management could not say how secure their jobs were in the wake of the massive fire.

“We can say that, definitely, at least there will be temporary dislocation. We would have to assess our situation as managers and then we will decide how we proceed. It is our intention, as best as we can keep any aspect of the operations going, then we would want to do that. But we just have to assess it and determine exactly how many workers we would need in the interim period and how best we can accommodate our workers, because we do have their interest at heart,” said Alcott.

The fire will do nothing to help the entities’ battle to hold their own in a market constantly flooded by imported plastic products, despite the fact that Omni and Flexpak have cornered a section of the local market. The gap in production will have to be made up by their competitors, staff speculated.

“We do have our fair share of competition from the Chinese goods, and a share of the market that we control someone will have to fill that void for the time being. But we know that there are certain things we do that people really want to buy from Omni, but they will have to make alternative arrangements until we are back on track,” said Alcott.”

“I wouldn’t want to even hazard a guess,” the managing director said when asked for an estimate as to how long “getting back on track” would take.

The company has seen its fair share of drama since its 1965 inception, with the son of the former founders and owners of Thermo-plastics doing battle with the Government over the handling of the asset and the sale of the premises by the Financial Sector Adjustment Company (Finsac).

At the time, Thermo-plastics was said to have owed hundreds of millions of dollars to banks and other creditors before going belly-up and being taken over by the Finsac in the 1990s.

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