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Apex fire may smolder until dawn Saturday

Oct 17, 2006 |

After hours of waiting outside a gutted, smoking hazardous waste plant, firefighters this morning were mounting a direct assault on a still-formidable fire.

County officials said that the fire at the 7,300-square-foot Environmental Quality Co. warehouse could burn into Sunday because twisted metal blocked access to the flames.

Since fire and explosions late Thursday set loose a choking chemical cloud over downtown Apex, fire crews let the building burn out of concern that pouring water or foam would spread contamination or cause an explosive reaction. Fire crews began to use a dry flame retardant Friday evening to put out the remnants of the fire that had emitted 200-foot plumes of smoke and flame.

The building’s roof had collapsed by Friday afternoon, leaving three smaller fires beneath the rubble. Firefighters then used several techniques to extinguish the flames and contain contamination. They hauled dirt in dump trucks to build dams and berms to trap contaminated runoff. They used construction equipment to peel back the roof and spray foam onto the flames.

“That’s been something that slowed us down a bit being able to access those fires and extinguish them,” Raleigh Fire Capt. Keith Wilder said.

This town of about 28,000 has been left with a mess to clean up, uncertainty about environmental damage and lingering images of the fireballs that lit the Thursday night sky and emptied downtown streets.

With winds beginning to pick up Friday night, town officials who had announced a voluntary evacuation for about the half the town’s population decided to keep an emergency shelter open at Green Hope High School and maintain police barricades around several subdivisions through today.

County and town officials would not say when people would be allowed to return but said it wouldn’t be before the fire was out.

The main concern was a chemical cloud released by the fire at the plant just east of downtown. With the fire still burning, officials were concerned that even a small flare-up could cause new air problems.

The building was used as a southeastern collection point for industrial and residential waste sometimes called “hazmat” for hazardous materials which was then transferred to other plants for recycling or disposal.

Apex Fire Chief Mark Haraway said Environmental Quality officials told him the site contained pesticides, oxides, bulk sulfur, contaminated lead and other contaminated metals at the time of the fire Thursday night. “It’s literally the worst-case hazmat scenario you can have,” he said.

Firefighters also identified toxic chlorine gas from a distinctive yellow-green haze they spotted around streetlights when they first arrived late Thursday, Town Manager Bruce Radford said.

Exposure to the gas caused 13 police officers and a firefighter to suffer from nausea and minor bleeding. One officer also had a minor facial burn, and an Apex police dog named Hondrick became sick, town officials said.

Scott Maris, the company’s vice president for regulatory affairs, said EQ wanted to help authorities put out the fire and address concerns about air quality as soon as possible.

“Our biggest goal is to get everyone home,” he said.

Representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a private contractor hired by the company were “optimistic” after sampling air quality around the property and on nearby streets in town Friday, Mayor Keith Weatherly said.

In a prepared statement, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources said air-quality monitors did not detect “anything alarming” Friday. A light drizzle Friday also helped wash toxic particles out of the air.

Though several hundred residents stayed at three emergency shelters Thursday, by Friday evening only a handful remained at the sole remaining shelter at Green Hope High School.

“We can’t leave; we have nowhere to go,” Brenda Nelson, 53, said at the shelter.

She was frustrated that the town had not given out more information about when she would be able to return to her home on Center Street, a half-mile from the plant. “It suddenly died down, and here we are sitting in the shelter,” she said.

EQ representatives late Friday night offered to put approximately 70 evacuees up in local hotels. All but five went.

Hundreds of other town residents stayed with friends and relatives or booked rooms in local hotels. Countless others chose to stay put.

Authorities said they had no way of knowing exactly how many evacuated. Rick Fore stopped at the Green Hope High School shelter Friday night to offer three bedrooms in his Cary home.

“If I was out of a home, I would like someone to help me,” he said. Shelter organizers took his name and number and told him they’d call if there was a need.

Police barricades did not deter some residents from going home Friday.

Joey Heilmann, 20, and Nick Blalock, 18, had the day off from a Red Robin restaurant because of the evacuation. After staying at a friend’s house Thursday night, they drove through back parking lots to go home to pick up cash and toothbrushes.

“It was a ghost town,” Heilmann said. “Everything was abandoned.”

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