First, the floor began to shake.
Then, the noise: a snap that seemed to tear through the building, sending a shower of debris onto the plant's main floor.
In the darkness, workers crawled on the ground as flames began to crackle overhead.
Outside, where he'd gone to check on delivery trucks minutes earlier, Jamar White felt a fireball at his back, so he started running. When he stopped and turned around to look, the wall of the plant was torn open. On an upper floor, at least two people were trapped.
“It was terrible,” he said. “I could see a couple of my co-workers screaming for help.”
Within an hour, ambulances were streaming out of the International Nutrition plant in south-central Omaha, each carrying an injured victim. Later, as family members gathered to await news, fire officials said they were struggling to reach workers trapped inside — and fearing that rescuers could be hurt in a secondary structure collapse.
By late afternoon, the toll of what officials are calling an “industrial accident” was clear.
Of the 38 people in the plant Monday morning, 10 were injured and two were dead.
Tuesday morning, the Associated Press reported that at least four of the 10 workers sent to Omaha hospitals had been released.
Bergan Mercy Medical Center said two of the three workers sent there were treated and released. Nebraska Medical Center said two workers sent there were treated for minor injuries and then released. The hospital also said it treated a firefighter and released him.
Authorities said seven other workers were treated at the scene.
Monday evening, police identified one of the victims as 53-year-old Keith Everett. Family members of a second missing man, 47-year-old David Ball, confirmed that he still was unaccounted for.
Plenty of questions remained about what had caused the accident at 7706 I Plaza, where workers manufacture animal supplements and feed products.
Interim Fire Chief Bernie Kanger said officials from his department and several other agencies, including a Lincoln-based urban search-and-rescue team, were still scouring the scene for clues — a process that he said could take days. Asked whether there was an explosion, Kanger said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would be responsible for classifying the accident.
International Nutrition officials declined to comment.
Workers and their family members, however, spent the day looking for answers to more basic questions: Is Dad OK? Is my husband alive? Did my friends survive?
In text messages, phone calls and tearful reunions, the employees who made it out of the plant told of shock, fear — and grief for friends they'd had to leave behind at the smoky, chaotic scene.
Nate Lewis, 21, was working on the main-floor production line when he heard the noise and was suddenly plunged into “pitch blackness.”
“We just took cover and tried to make it out the best we could,” he said.
He pulled out his phone to use as a flashlight and made his way to an opening in the building. Overhead, as the fire spread, a sprinkler system kicked in and showered him with water.
Nate Lewis, 21, crawled his way out using his cellphone for light. He said coworkers had cuts and bruises. pic.twitter.com/GhNEvnIvtk— Erin Golden (@golden_erin) January 20, 2014
Forklift operator Kendrick Houston, 38, was also on the main floor.
“I saw a spark, and there was a big ball of flame coming from the southwest corner of the building,” he said.
He and a co-worker hit the ground before sprinting through a garage door that Houston thought was blown open in the accident.
Behind him, another co-worker was also running. He'd been burned.
Houston decided he needed to go back in to help others.
“I ran back in,” Houston said. “I yelled their names, but they didn't answer.”
He made his way as far as the heat and smoke would allow him, then retreated outside again.
“It was disarray,” Houston said. “All the lights were out. It was pitch black. ... I think it was still burning in that corner.”
The other workers Houston had been seeking eventually came out through a different exit. Houston was later treated for smoke inhalation at the Nebraska Medical Center.
White, the worker who had been outside, said he tried to help, too.
He ran back toward the burning building, toward his co-workers screaming on the third floor, but quickly realized that there was little he could do.
Jamar White was outside the plant. "I felt the fireball on my back and I started running." pic.twitter.com/nra4vv3b4j— Erin Golden (@golden_erin) January 20, 2014
The news came to workers' family members in sudden, confusing pieces.
At 10:09 a.m., Kari Cook's phone buzzed with a text from her boyfriend, John Broderick, a 53-year-old shift supervisor.
“Major accident. I'm hurt and trapped. Love you.”
Cook thought Broderick was joking.
“Honey, answer me,” she replied.
There was no response.
A few minutes later, Cook was in the parking lot of an office building near the plant.
As fire engines, ambulances and police cruisers zoomed in and out, family members began to gather. They hugged each other and shared small, incomplete snippets of news. They paced in the parking lot, shivering from the wind, hoping to see familiar faces.
Mary Brown said she hadn't heard anything about the accident until she got a text from her son, 25-year-old Jake Wolfe: “I'm OK.”
He told her what had happened. He said he loved her.
“He's pretty shaken up,” Brown said as she waited with other families. “They're all friends.”
She began to cry.
“I just want to see him,” she said. “You don't expect this kind of thing.”
Mary Brown is reunited with her son, Jake. "I just needed to see him," she says. pic.twitter.com/hMTw2j4kt9— Erin Golden (@golden_erin) January 20, 2014
Diane Stout was shopping at Nebraska Furniture Mart with her daughter Stacey when she got a call from her husband. Duanne Stout, 54, a maintenance supervisor who has worked at International Nutrition for more than a decade, told her he made it out with only a cut on his elbow. But he was worried about two of his co-workers: Everett and Ball. They were trapped, he said.
Diane Stout and her daughters turned up to wait for news about the two missing men. She said she feared the worst.
“It will devastate my husband,” she said. “He will feel responsible.”
Information slowly trickled in. Cook learned that Broderick had been taken to the hospital.
The uninjured workers were kept at the plant for a few hours before they were allowed to see their families.
As he hugged his mother, Angel, in a nearby office parking lot, Nate Lewis wore a borrowed T-shirt and clutched a blanket around his waist. His clothes, he said, had been drenched by the sprinklers.
“I'm so happy. I'm ecstatic,” Angel Lewis said. “I think he's going to understand someday what we've been through.”
Other relatives fanned out to hospitals in Omaha and Lincoln to find injured loved ones.
Some had suffered smoke inhalation. One man taken to a hospital in critical condition was described as having hypothermia-like symptoms. Paramedics said the man was submerged in cold water after an object fell on him.
Two others were sent to the burn unit of St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center in Lincoln.
Erik Ocampo, 20, of Omaha was being treated there for burns to his hands and face, his relatives said.
Ocampo told them he was working on a production line when he thought something exploded and suddenly felt engulfed by flames.
“He said his whole body was on fire,” said his wife, Alison Ocampo. “He dropped to the floor and rolled, and that's when he felt something hit his back.”
Miriam Ocampo, Erik's mother, said they were able to visit and speak with him briefly after he initially was taken to Creighton University Medical Center. She said his clothing showed signs of fire damage and was covered in dust.
“He doesn't know how he got out, but he got out,” Miriam Ocampo said, adding that her son has worked at the plant about one year.
Miriam Ocampo said her brother and brother-in-law also work at International Nutrition.
Her brother-in-law suffered minor injuries and was being treated in Omaha, and her brother was uninjured.
In total, Omaha firefighters pulled five people from different levels of the building. The second and third floors collapsed, which meant that rescuers had to use aerial and ladder trucks to extract workers. One person was found buried under concrete and steel.
“Our initial crews performed with incredible bravery based on the amount of damage and the unknowns,” Kanger said. “They worked as long as we could possibly allow them to work.”
Recovery efforts continued through Monday evening, when crews retrieved the body of one victim. They got within 10 feet of the second man but had to give up because of the dark, windy and bitterly cold conditions.
The search, he said, would resume this morning.
Mayor Jean Stothert's statement about the accident:
Our city has experienced another tragedy.
At least two people have been killed and ten injured in the industrial accident at International Nutrition. I offer my sympathy to the owners and employees and their families.
Omaha firefighters are trained to respond to emergencies of this nature. Our first responders, working with the Omaha Police, the Nebraska Fire Marshall, OSHA and the Nebraska Task
Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue team reacted rapidly and flawlessly to assist the injured and secure the building.
I have promised Chief Kanger the resources he needs to complete the recovery in this very dangerous building.
Omaha firefighters are committed to serve. That commitment was apparent today as firefighters risked their own safety to rescue injured employees trapped in the debris. I am grateful to Chief Kanger for his leadership at the scene and the dedication of our firefighters.”
World-Herald staff writers Christopher Burbach, Maggie O'Brien, Kevin Cole, Joe Duggan, Nancy Gaarder, Lizzie Johnson, Leia Mendoza, Emily Nohr, Alissa Skelton, Barbara Soderlin and Jay Withrow contributed to this report.