September 29, 2013

NH gunpowder plant owner set for trial on deadly 2010 explosion

By LYNNE TUOHY, The Associated Press

LANCASTER, N.H. — The owner of a New Hampshire gun powder plant where two workers died in a 2010 explosion will argue in court that he cannot be guilty of manslaughter and negligent homicide because he was at a gun show in North Carolina when the fatal explosion occurred.

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Emergency crews respond to an explosion at the Black Mag factory plant, in Colebrook, N.H., on May 10, 2010. Jesse Kennett and Dinald Kendall were killed during the explosion at the plant. The owner of the gunpowder factory, Craig Sanborn of Maidstone, Vt., is scheduled to go on trial for negligence. Sanborn of was indicted last year on two counts of manslaughter and two counts of negligent homicide.

AP file photo

The trial of 64-year-old Craig Sanborn, of Maidstone, Vt., starts Monday in Coos Superior Court in Lancaster.

The two victims, 56-year-old Donald Kendall, of Colebrook and 49-year-old Jesse Kennett, of Stratford, were hired just a month before the blast on May 14, 2010, at Sanborn's Black Mag gunpowder plant in Colebrook.

The force of the explosion shook nearby buildings and sent plumes of black smoke into the air. Dozens of homes were evacuated and firefighters couldn't get near the blaze for several hours because ammunition was exploding.

Coos County Attorney John McCormick plans to present dozens of witnesses who say Sanborn was reckless in manufacturing, testing and storing black powder and failed to adequately train and protect workers.

Sanborn has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer, Mark Sisti, maintains that the cause of the explosion is in dispute and that someone else was in charge while Sanborn was manning a booth at the National Rifle Association's annual show in Charlotte.

"Mr. Sanborn's only connection to the operation at the time of the explosion was his ownership status," Sisti said in court documents.

McCormick will argue that Sanborn was attempting to fill an "unattainable" order that involved production of more than 2,000 pounds of gunpowder a week at the fledgling plant.

There are some things jurors in the case won't hear because of pretrial rulings by Superior Court Judge Peter Bornstein.

Mark Porter, who resigned after less than two weeks on the job, says he told Sanborn the facility was "a death trap" during an exit interview 10 days before the explosion. The judge said that description was too inflammatory and Porter can say only that he flagged "extremely unsafe" conditions.

Jurors also will not hear about an agreement between Sanborn and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2011 that resolved more than a dozen "willful violations." Sanborn admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to pay a $1.2 million fine.

They also will not learn about injuries sustained by an independent contractor four months earlier in a flash fire at the plant. The judge ruled that was not relevant to the May explosion.

Sanborn owned several ammunition manufacturing plants in Maine dating back to 1999. He closed one in 2009 and later that year moved the operation to Colebrook, near the Canadian border, about 140 miles north of Concord.

Court documents detail numerous allegations of negligence by Sanborn. They include having the gunpowder-making machines too close together and failing to "bunker" them to minimize damage from a possible explosion. The prosecution also says the plant did not have remote operation devices to distance workers from an explosion. McCormick says Sanborn also misrepresented to employees that there was no risk of explosion if the gunpowder ignited.

McCormick and Sisti declined to comment on the case. The trial is expected to go into mid- to late October.

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