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NEWBURYPORT, Mass. (AP) — A powerful explosion at a pharmaceutical plant in Massachusetts that has a history of fires and violations left one worker missing, sent four people to the hospital and blew an industrial-sized vat into a parking lot, officials said Thursday.

The explosion happened around 1 a.m. at the Sequens/PCI Synthesis plant in Newburyport, officials said. Video footage showed most of the roof torn off a building, and the blast blew a vat from inside the building 30 feet into a parking lot, acting Fire Chief Stephen Bradbury III said in a news release.

It wasn’t immediately known what caused the explosion, and it wasn’t clear what role, if any, the vat played in the explosion.

There is no danger to nearby homes, Bradbury said, but workers at the industrial park where the plant is located were asked to avoid the area.

Nancy Gero, 58, who works next door, didn’t get that message. As she pulled up to her workplace, she saw emergency vehicles packing the parking lot with foam, and debris everywhere.

“I could smell chemicals in the air,” she said. “I could taste it on my lips.”

The four workers were sent to the hospital as a precaution, were not injured and were released. But one worker was not yet accounted for.

“All our attention is focused on the situation of our employees,” a company statement said.

Dangerous conditions in the building prevented firefighters from searching for the missing worker, Bradbury said at a news conference. Fire crews are meeting with a demolition company and the city’s structural engineer and building inspector “to make sure it’s safe for us to continue our search,” he said.

Chemists from the company and a technical rescue crew have responded. A spokesperson for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration said that agency was also responding.

In 2020, authorities said a chemical reaction caused a series of explosions at the plant. That happened a year after OSHA found “serious” violations in the company’s management of highly hazardous chemicals, according to online agency records. There were no serious injuries.

A chemical fire in the building in June 2021 sent smoke pouring out of roof vents and prompted a response by a hazardous materials team, according to a fire department statement at the time. Sprinklers controlled the fire within about 20 minutes, but the city suspended the factory’s permits during the investigation.

The factory has also been cited by OSHA for violations of workplace safety rules and by the Environmental Protection Agency for alleged violations of hazardous waste laws.

Gero has been working at her company for only a little more than a year and until Thursday wasn’t aware of past problems at the plant.

“A lot of people work there,” she said. “If that had happened during the day it would have been a disaster.”

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