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Thousands evacuated from Apex because of hazardous material fire

Oct 6, 2006 | AP

Authorities asked about 16,000 residents of this suburban Raleigh town to evacuate early Friday morning as they waited for daylight before starting to fight a massive hazardous material fire.

"This is truly awful," town manager Bruce Radford said. "It is the worst potential hazardous materials fire that you can expect."

No serious injuries were immediately reported, although a spokeswoman at Raleigh's Rex Healthcare hospital said six people were in good condition as they received oxygen because of respiratory problems. A spokeswoman at WakeMed hospital in Raleigh said two people came there as a precaution.

Radford said firefighters had to wait for daybreak to properly examine the blaze at Environmental Quality Co., a hazardous waste business that housed a variety of volatile chemicals, including chlorine. Even then, he said, the best option might be to simply wait for the fire to burn itself out.

"We know this will go on for several more hours, if not for the entire day," he said around 2:30 a.m., adding he didn't yet know what might have started the fire.

A yellow haze lingered over downtown overnight and there was a faint smell of chlorine in the air. Police lined up along the main street that runs through the town's business district, blocking both ends of the road. Radford said Apex's downtown and schools would be closed on Friday.

"Tomorrow morning at daybreak, people are going to want to come in and sight-see at this fire scene," Radford said. "They will either get terribly sick or they will be arrested. No questions asked."

Radford said the fire started around 10 p.m. Thursday. He said when he arrived at the scene, a chlorine cloud rose 50 feet in the air and flames shot three times as high. He estimated that 20 to 30 explosions had occurred at the plant.

"They don't know whether they even want to put water on the fire at this point," said Sharon Brown, a spokesman at the Wake County Emergency Management Center. "At this point they're still monitoring the chemicals, and they don't know what the best way to mitigate the fire is."

Robert Doyle, an Environmental Quality spokesman at the company's headquarters outside Detroit, said the company was mobilizing its own emergency response team to help with the clean up. He said about 25 employees work at the Apex plant and all had left the building by 7 p.m.

Doyle said the facility handles a wide array of industrial waste ranging from paints to solvents.

"Because of the many different types of waste that we bring in, it's very difficult to determine the cause of the fire," he said.

The evacuation generally covered the west side of Apex, located about 10 miles southwest of Raleigh. Authorities opened a shelter at an elementary school on the town's east side, and Radford said it would be also be safe to take shelter at hotels in nearby Cary.

At the shelter, the parking lot was full overnight as a few hundred residents and their pets milled around, waiting calmly for news about the fire.

Cory Cataldo was at the shelter with his wife, Sherry, and their two young sons. He said they were awakened around 1 a.m. by a knock at the door, and an unidentified man told them to evacuate because of a chemical fire.

"That's about all I needed to know," said Cataldo, who said his wife and sons have asthma. "My first concern was just to get everybody out."

Cataldo said he heard what he thought were fireworks from the end of Thursday's nights college football game between Florida State and N.C. State in Raleigh. He now thinks what he heard were explosions at Environmental Quality.

Radford said 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 order. 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 said. "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.

The six people receiving oxygen were transferred to Rex Healthcare from an Apex rehabilitation center, said hospital spokeswoman Lisa Schiller. About 80 people were transferred from a nursing home to WakeMed Cary hospital as a precaution, said WakeMed spokeswoman Deb Laughery.

Radford said Apex and Wake County had declared a state of emergency, starting the process of asking for federal assistance.

"It's quite scary," said Apex resident Andrew Smith, who lives about a mile west of the fire, just outside the evacuation zone. "The sky is definitely lit up. We can see a big column of smoke and occasionally flashes of light from explosions."

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