A day after a worker was killed in an explosion at a pharmaceutical plant in Newburyport, elected officials are asking how such a tragedy could have happened when regulators had flagged the facility for violations for years.

Thursday’s early morning explosion at the Seqens/PCI Synthesis factory killed a 62-year-old worker from Methuen named Jack O’Keefe, according to local officials. His body was recovered from the wreckage inside the building last night.

The presence of volatile chemicals and concerns about the stability of the building hampered the search for O’Keefe, Newburyport Mayor Sean Reardon told GBH News.

While the cause of the explosion remains under investigation, Reardon and state and federal leaders are calling for more answers from the company’s owners and questioning whether the factory should be permitted to continue operating there.

Rubble is strewn across a parking lot outside of the factory.
A metal piece of rubble and other debris from the explosion sits on the ground of a parking lot outside the Newburyport factory Friday.
Christopher Burrell GBH News

The fatal explosion at the factory was the third explosion or chemical fire at the site in three years. Since 2015, Seqens has faced numerous federal safety violations and fines from both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“My first priority is public safety of our residents,” said Mayor Reardon. “I'm very interested in the investigation and what kind of evidence and what kind of findings that brings about. Then we'll have to determine if this is the type of work that needs to continue in the city.”

Yesterday, members of the state's congressional delegation wrote a joint letter to Seqens North America, demanding answers and accountability from factory ownership.

“This explosion is only the latest avoidable disaster at this facility, following years of serious safety violations, multiple fines, and other explosions,” Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Seth Moulton wrote. “We write seeking the explanation as to why this latest incident occurred and how, after years of fines and regulatory enforcement actions, Seqens could have allowed unsafe conditions to persist.”

The lawmakers also asked Seqens to explain what it did to correct more than two dozen OSHA violations over the last seven years and what grounds the company cited to reduce the final fines it paid to federal regulators.

“We can’t keep excusing companies’ flagrant disregard for worker safety," Markey wrote in a tweet yesterday.

In 1997 and 2005, a chemical factory in Fitchburg run by Seqens, then-called PolyCarbon Industries, also experienced explosions, one of them injuring a worker’s hand.

Seqens announced plans earlier this year to open a research and development center in Devens, according to its website.

OSHA confirms opening a new investigation in the aftermath of the explosion to determine if Seqens has complied with OSHA workplace safety and health standards. OSHA has up to six months to complete this process and issue possible violations and fines.