As many as 17,000 people were urged to flee homes on the outskirts of Raleigh early Friday as flames shot from a burning hazardous waste plant and a chlorine cloud rose high over the area.
No employees were believed to have been inside the EQ Industrial Services plant when the fire started late Thursday and a series of explosions began rocking the property.
Eighteen people, many of them law enforcement officers, were taken to emergency rooms with respiratory problems, hospital officials said.
EQ Industrial Services handles a wide array of industrial waste, from paints to solvents, and houses chemicals such as chlorine, pesticides, herbicides, sulfur and fertilizer.
Because of the potential dangers in that mix, firefighters waited for daybreak to determine how to attack the blaze, officials said. Friday morning, area schools and downtown Apex were closed, and police blocked off streets into the area as the plant continued to burn.
“You can’t put foam or water on it,” Mayor Keith Weatherly said. “That just exacerbates it.”
It wasn’t immediately clear what had started the fire. The flames appeared to have jumped overnight to four petroleum tanks belonging to another company, which may have accounted for some of the explosions, Weatherly said.
EQ spokesman Robert Doyle said the Wayne, Mich.-based company was mobilizing its emergency response team to help with the clean up. About 25 employees work at the Apex plant, but all had left the building by 7 p.m. Thursday, he said.
“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.
In March, the state Department of Natural Resources had fined EQ $32,000 for six violations at the plant, including failing to “maintain and operate the facility to minimize the possibility of a sudden or non-sudden release of hazardous waste … which could threaten human health or the environment.” But Doyle cautioned that the violations might not have had anything to do with the fire.
“That could range from anything like a spill of materials that could get in a storm drain,” he said. “It could be completely unrelated to something like a fire or explosion.”
Officials initially urged about half the Apex’s residents to evacuate, then expanded the request about two hours later to thousands more when a plume of smoke and chemicals moved.
“We’ll be making more evacuations as time progresses,” town manager Bruce Radford said.
Overnight, a yellow haze lingered over downtown, and residents as far as 2 miles away said they could see the plume or smell the chemicals, officials said.
The evacuation covered much of the west side of Apex, about 10 miles southwest of Raleigh. Authorities opened a shelter at an elementary school, where a few hundred residents and their pets waited for news about the fire.
Cory Cataldo said he and his wife and two young sons were awakened around 1 a.m. by a knock at the door, and a 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.”
Of those who didn’t evacuate, Radford said: “They are putting themselves in very grave danger by being around this smoke.”
About 100 elderly residents were evacuated from a nursing home in Apex and taken to nearby hospitals for shelter.
Even Apex’s 911 center and fire department were evacuated because of the fire.
Radford said both Apex and Wake County declared a state of emergency, starting the process of asking for government assistance. Radford said calls to 911 were being received by Wake County, and the “reverse 911” system was used to call homes in Apex and relay emergency information.
Hospital officials confirmed early Friday that 18 people have been sent to emergency rooms in Raleigh and Cary. Eight of those are law enforcement officers and one is a firefighter who complained of nausea and respiratory problems. The others were residents being treated for “respiratory distress,” said WakeMed spokeswoman Heather Monackey.
“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.”