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Apex fire forces evacuations

Oct 6, 2006 | News & Observer

Fire crews have not begun to fight a fire at a hazardous waste plant that has spread a cloud of dangerous chlorine gas across Apex this morning, forcing more than 15,000 people to evacuate.

Officials say they planned to send a hazardous materials crew in a mid-morning to evaluate the fire. In the meantime, they've been letting it burn, out of concern that pouring water or foam on it would make things worse, said town manager Bruce Radford. The rain that started falling around 7 a.m. "doesn't make anything better," Radford said.

State officials have set up air monitors around the fire, but have so far not detecting "anything alarming," according to a statement from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The rain should help reduce the amount of toxic chemicals in the air, the statement said.

The fire that followed a series of late-night explosions at Environmental Quality Co. just east of downtown has closed all Apex schools and school bus routes that start inside the Western Wake town. In addition, the Wake County Public School System said bus transportation elsewhere in Western and Southwestern Wake County would likely be delayed this morning. Green Hope High School in Cary, which is being used a shelter for evacuated residents, will also be closed.

Officials urged people to evacuate an area bounded by U.S. 1, N.C. 55 and U.S. 64 highways in Apex and unincorporated areas. Police are blocking roads into the center of town, and Radford urged everyone to stay away.

"If they choose to come, go ahead and write their names on their foreheads and the names of their next of kin," he said.

The fire also shut down a large stretch of N.C. 55, a major road into jobs in and around Research Triangle Park in time for this morning's commute. Northbound drivers on N.C. 55 are being detoured around Apex via northbound U.S. 1, then onto westbound U.S. 64 and back to N.C. 55.

Heavy congestion was reported on these roads this morning, and the Highway Patrol suggested that commuters find other routes.

The fire raged out of control all night, and firefighters could not get closer than 100 yards to it. They urged shut-in residents to close their windows and run from the toxic smoke.

By 5 a.m. today, the fire had spread to neighboring White Oil and ignited four petroleum tanks.

Russell McClelland's daughter in Apex went to Western Wake after she started choking.

"She could barely talk," McClelland said.

Chlorine is a yellow-green gas used in the manufacture of other chemicals. It can damage eyes, skin and lung tissues and can be fatal after long exposure. It was used as a choking weapon on the western front during World War I.

The Wake County Emergency Operations Center has been activated, the county announced at 3:35 a.m. today. Wake and Apex fire, rescue and hazardous personnel are coordinating emergency response efforts.

Residents who did not evacuate were advised to stay indoors, keep their windows closed, and turn off air conditioning or other air exchange systems.

Shelters were opened at Olive Chapel Elementary and Turner Creek Elementary, where about 380 people had sought refuge as of 7 a.m. But as the day began, most people left and those who remained were being transferred to Green Hope High School. Officials think many hundreds or thousands of evacuees have found shelter on their own at hotels or with family and friend.

"A lot of people have reconnected with family members, and a lot have found lodging on their own," said Jane Martin, Wake County spokeswoman.

Those requiring assistance may call the Wake County Emergency Operations Center at 856-7044.

The blaze at Environmental Quality Co. on Investment Boulevard started shortly before 10 p.m. Past midnight, people were still walking under a black plume that had covered the downtown Apex area too close to send in police to warn them, Radford said.

"If you see the smoke, run away from it," Radford said.

Wake County has declared a state of emergency.

Radford said he had "absolutely no idea" what triggered the fires.

Police and other emergency officials went door to door warning residents. Officials also activated the "reverse 911" system, calling everyone near the fire.

Early this morning, the Waterford Green subdivision about 2 miles east of downtown joined several other Apex neighborhoods that were evacuated, as was a Holiday Inn Express off N.C. 55. More than 70 senior citizens from Rex Rehabilitation and Nursing Care Center on South Hughes Street also were evacuated.

The explosion was loud and bright enough to see 5 miles away.

"It was like the world's largest bowl of Rice Krispies pop, pop, pop! But it was real loud," said John Echols, 28, who lives two blocks from the EQ plant. He said at first fireballs "would shoot up from time to time. It was nasty."

He took a blanket, a pillow and a "Lord of the Rings" book to the Olive Chapel Elementary shelter.

Still, some would not flee.

Pat Smith, who lives about 1 mile from the plant, wanted to be evacuated, but her 87-year-old father, Laddie, lives next door and didn't want to leave.

"He's 87 and kind of set in his ways," Smith said.

By 1:30 a.m., he had no choice. He and his daughter were ordered to evacuate.

Anthony Ladesso, 39, was home Thursday night when his wife reported hearing something like thunder. He stepped outside to smoke a cigarette, doubting her, and smelled "a very sweet odor," he said.

Soon, he saw emergency officials running past in gas masks, and a neighbor sped by telling him to get his wife and three kids away.

Nearby, Jennifer Zinc, 29, heard a noise like fireworks. "We have our cats, and I'm pregnant," she said, cats safely stowed in cages, "so we thought we better get out of here."

Radford called the waste fire the worst possible disaster. Roughly half the town of about 32,000 was forced to leave. The plant also contained pesticides and polychlorine biphenyls, or PCBs, Radford said.

On its Web site, the company calls its Apex plant "a single stop option for your waste management needs."

The Environmental Quality Co. was forced to shut down a hazardous waste recycling and treatment plant near Detroit in 2005 after an explosion sparked a fire.

The company has also recycled deicing fluid in Michigan and Ohio. In 1994, the company entered into a voluntary consent judgment with Michigan after a fire at a waste treatment plant. That judgment included a $500,000 penalty.

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