The future looked good to Dave Mason. A nice, steady job. A new baby. A decent apartment.
The economy may have been sagging all around him in this scrappy eastern North Carolina town. But he'd found a rare pocket of prosperity in the molten rubber room at the West Pharmaceutical plant, a $13-an-hour, full-benefits kind of prosperity that is harder and harder to come by in this region.
He'd even started talking to his wife, Mary, about having another baby. But all of that changed in a window-rattling instant Wednesday when an explosion that was heard for 15 miles and a ferocious fire destroyed one of this area's largest manufacturing plants, killing three people and injuring dozens more. Today, authorities began trying to figure out the cause, and the 225 plant employees began to consider their futures.
Suddenly, expanding his family doesn't seem like such a good idea to Mason.
"Those plans are kind of on hold now," Mason, 21, said today, as he stood outside a crowded company meeting.
Workers inside applauded as company executives announced that all employees will get paychecks through the end of February. After that, Mason said, the company is offering to help with unemployment forms.
For all his troubles, Mason counted himself fortunate, saying the company was generous to offer a month's pay. But when the checks stop coming, he knows he has mouths to feed, and an unemployment check won't cut it. He is almost certain he will not be able to find another job that pays nearly as much.
"Things are bad around here right now," Mason said. "I'll flip burgers if I have to, to make ends meet."
Willie Graham, 51, a lean former Marine, was making quick calculations, too. The mortgage on his little house is $600 a month, and he needed every bit of his $13-an-hour job to pay it.
"We'll just have to wait and see," Graham said. "The job market is very slim."
Elsewhere, families gathered in hospital waiting rooms to get updates on 35 injured workers, radio stations held fundraising drives and lines formed to donate blood. At least 10 employees, ranging in age from 29 to 62, were in critical condition today at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill.
Dozens of their colleagues, the ones who got out in time, met with investigators from state and federal agencies to try to figure out what went wrong and why. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board issued a statement late today that said the explosion may have been caused by ignitable rubber dust produced in the manufacturing process.
Don Morel, West Pharmaceutical Services chief executive, said the plant will be back, but he didn't mention a timetable.
"We've got too many good people," Morel said, according to the Associated Press, "and too much skill set here."