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Hazardous gas, fire lead to evacuations in Apex

Oct 6, 2006 | AP More than half of the town of Apex, about 17,500 people, fled their homes Thursday night and early Friday after a chemical fire spewed a toxic cloud across the town, southwest of Raleigh.

Officials report at least 28 people have been treated for respiratory and other problems apparently caused by the blaze.

Additional evacuations were ordered this morning, after officials feared a change in the wind direction could send the plume of smoke and chemicals into an even wider area of Apex.

The fire at EQ Carolina, which stands for Environmental Quality, erupted about 10 p.m. Thursday and sent flames shooting 150 feet into the air.

The company disposes of hazardous materials, and the fire billowed plumes of smoke, laced with chlorine gas and potentially pesticides and other toxins.

Police and fire fighters retreated from the scene.

Ten police officers and a fire fighter were going through decontamination and being treated early this morning after complaining of nausea and respiratory difficulty. Half of the emergency workers had been discharged by 9:30 a.m. with no signs of complications.

The flames also spread to a neighboring light oil company, igniting four oil tanks.

Officials in the town of 28,000 were most worried this morning about rain and shifting winds that could carry the fire’s plume into areas that hadn’t been affected earlier.

Emergency crews were encouraged by the effect of a morning rainfall that started shortly after 7 a.m. "The rain is the best thing that could have happened," said Keith Weatherly, Apex Mayor. The rain was scrubbing the air of the plume of toxic smoke, Weatherly said, quoting state environmental officials.

"The fire has gone down significantly," said Bruce Radford, Town Manager. Residents 2 miles from the plant reported being able to see the plume or smell the chemicals this morning.

In a news conference this morning, Weatherly warned onlookers to stay away.

“People are going to want to come and sight-see,” Weatherly said. “They will either get terribly sick, or they will be arrested. No questions asked.”

Town leaders evacuated a 1-mile radius around the plant, including police headquarters and the town’s 911 center. The evacuation area was on the west side of Apex. Weatherly said officials would wait until they are sure the site has stabilized and there's no further risk before allowing residents to return to their homes. "We will do that as expeditiously as is prudent," he said.

Evacuees initially took shelter at two elementary schools, although most in the middle- and upper-class suburban community of Raleigh headed to hotels or the homes of friends and relatives. Tom and Laurel Sumner awoke to police officers knocking on their door, shortly after 1 a.m.

The Sumners, recent transplants from New Hampshire, scooped up their daughters – 1-year-old Emily and 5-year-old Isabelle – but not much else.

“When they tell you to leave, you don’t think too long about what to take,” said Tom Sumner, as the family waited out the crisis at Olive Chapel Elementary School, along with 200 or so other evacuees.

Red Cross volunteers brought in food, cots, diapers and other essentials.

Hazardous materials teams from Raleigh and other neighboring cities came to Apex’s aid, but town officials were letting the fire burn out early this morning.

They expect Raleigh Hazmat team members to get a look at the fire later this morning, using Apex’s newest fire truck. The truck, which debuted in August, carries a 95-foot ladder that will provide an aerial view.

“Right now, we’re waiting for the hazmat team to get on the site and give us an assessment,” Radford, the town manager, said.

Apex officials reported no history of problems with EQ Carolina but acknowledged that they learned through the media this morning that state environmental officials issued citations and fines for safety violations earlier this year.

Weatherly, the mayor, said the town had not been alerted to the violations by the state.

“It certainly would have been prudent” to have told town leaders, Weatherly said.

Weatherly said that while the company was sited for violations earlier this year the most recent inspections on September 28 and 29 by the state division of hazardous waste showed no violations. Hazardous response teams from Raleigh were moving in to make an initial assessment of what remained in the fire around 9:30 a.m.

In addition to wind changes, officials feared that rain which began shortly after 7 a.m. could carry some of the toxins into new areas.

At least eight schools were closed Friday, and several roads leading into the town were sealed off.

The Associated Press reported that Robert Doyle, a spokesman for Detroit-based EQ Industrial Services, parent company of EQ Carolina, said the firm is sending an emergency response team to the Apex site to help with the cleanup.

Doyle said the company’s 25 employees left the building by 7 p.m. Thursday.

The Associated Press quoted Radford as saying some residents who live near the fire, in an industrial area near one of the town’s oldest residential neighborhoods, did not heed the evacuation request. He appeared on television around midnight to beg them to get away from what he called a “black, smoky cloud” that was covering downtown.

“They are taking their own lives at risk,” Radford told the AP. “They are putting themselves in very grave danger by being around this smoke.”

The fire forced officials to evacuate Apex’s 911 center and fire department. Radford said calls to 911 were still being received by Wake County, and the “reverse 911” system was used to call homes in Apex and relay emergency information.

Officials had hoped to get an aerial assessment of the flames overnight, but Civil Air Patrol Lt. Col. David Crawford said the survey flight was aborted because of weather. “This is one of the largest incidents and responses that I’ve seen,” he said.

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