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Broadcasting alumnus documents Louisiana grain elevator explosion for television
By Josh Murphy

Hahnville High instructor, Royd Anderson practices what he teaches. He recently released his second documentary detailing a Louisiana tragedy.

Anderson's film, “The Continental Grain Elevator Explosion,” documents the story behind a 1977 incident, which claimed the lives of 36 employees at a grain elevator in Westwego, a small town outside New Orleans.  The 33-minute video includes raw footage of the disaster shot by network news outlets and features interviews with survivors, rescue workers, and relatives of those who perished in the tragedy.

This is Anderson’s second foray into documentary-making.  He also assembled a documentary about a 1976 incident in which a ferry crashed into a tanker in Luling, killing 78.  Anderson completed and released “The Luling Ferry Disaster” in 2006.

Anderson said his father piqued his interest in the Westwego disaster, and that his reason for creating the documentaries was to shed light on these tragedies, which he feels are forgotten in Louisiana history.

“After completing the film, The Luling Ferry Disaster, I felt it was also necessary to create a documentary about the Continental Grain elevator explosion as well,” said Anderson. “Both of these Louisiana tragedies on the Mississippi River occurred a year and a couple of months apart. Louisiana history has overlooked them, sadly.”

The documentary premiered at the Westwego Library on Dec. 19, 2007, three days before the 30-year anniversary of the tragedy.  It has received accolades from Westwego Mayor Daniel P. Alario, and the Westwego Historical Society. It also received front-page coverage in three newspapers, including The Times-Picayune. The film has also been recognized & praised by CBS's 60 Minutes.

The documentary opens by detailing life in Westwego leading up to the explosion, as well as a brief synopsis of the town’s history.  Anderson gives a detailed account of the explosion and the reason behind it, which while never confirmed, is believed to have been caused by a buildup of gases and grain dust, which was ignited by an unintended and unknown spark. 

Footage of the aftermath, which destroyed more than forty of the seventy-three grain silos at the location, was interspersed with commentary from those who were affected by the incident. Producers for 60 Minutes on CBS contacted Anderson and reviewed his footage for a report by Scott Pelley.

The film allowed people to relate their accounts of the disaster, which was the worst grain elevator explosion in modern history, and tell of how they coped with losing loved ones as a consequence.  Prominently featured is Shirley Bourgeois, who lost two brothers in the explosion. She discusses the subsequent change of her family dynamics in the documentary.

“As a filmmaker, you can touch so many people,” said Anderson. “The City of Westwego has embraced me like a brother. I feel very fortunate to have been able to document this tragic event and honor the victims and their families.”

The documentary also maintains a relevance to current events, as a similar incident occurred on Feb. 7, 2008 at a sugar refinery in Chatham County, GA.

“Initial reports state the cause of the explosion is very similar to the Westwego explosion,” noted Anderson. “Like grain dust, sugar dust is also very volatile when exposed to static electricity.”

In addition to compiling interviews and footage, Anderson also filmed, edited, and composed the music for the documentary. Anderson, who received a Master’s degree in Communication had no filmmaking experience prior to entering graduate school, credits his education for giving him the tools which were necessary to create a successful documentary.

“Without my education at UL, I probably would be trodding along in life, surviving in the rat race. Now, my talents are being utilized to preserve local history,” Anderson said. “A special thanks to Dr. Davie, Dr. Auter, and Dr. Holmes for transforming me into the filmmaker I am today.”