APEX, N.C. - More than 17,000 people were urged to stay out of their homes
until at least Saturday after a thunderous series of explosions and a raging
fire at a hazardous-waste disposal plant released a plume of thick black smoke
and a yellow cloud of noxious gases.
Carolyn Hedgepeth, 63, calls Wake
County Pet Care Friday, Oct. 6, 2006, to ask them to check on her dog,
Winston, who Hedgepeth left at her home in Apex , N.Y., when she evacuated
Thursday night after hearing the explosions at a hazardous waste plant. .
Hedgepeth is standing outside the Green Hope High School evacuation center
in Cary, N.C. where she will stay until she is allowed to return home.
No employees were believed to have been inside the EQ Industrial Services
plant when the blasts rocked it late Thursday. Officials said 44 people went to
emergency rooms, most complaining of breathing problems, but nearly all had been
released by midday.
A timely rainstorm helped scrub the air, but Mayor Keith Weatherly said none
of the evacuated residents would be allowed to return home until the blaze is
extinguished, which was expected to be Saturday at the earliest.
"We want to err on the side of safety and not send anybody home," Apex Fire
Chief Mark Haraway said Friday.
Three significant fires burned Friday night, all under the collapsed building
that housed EQ Industrial Services.
The plant handles a variety of industrial wastes, includes paints, solvents,
pesticides and weed killer.
Because of the dangers in that mix, firefighters waited for daybreak to
determine how to attack the blaze, and used a video camera to get a look at the
burning building. Schools were closed, along with downtown Apex.
"We weren't talking about the town bakery," Apex Police Chief Jack Lewis said
of the seriousness of the evacuation. He said that he was nauseated all night
and that several of the first police officers to arrive at the fire required
medical care for respiratory problems, chest pains and nausea.
The cause of the blaze was not immediately known.
"Because of the many different types of waste that we bring in, it's very
difficult to determine the cause of the fire," EQ spokesman Robert Doyle said.
About 25 employees work at the plant, but all had left the building by 7 p.m.
Thursday, he said.
State Department of Environment and Natural Resources officials said Friday
afternoon their tests "had not detected anything out of the ordinary in the
air." The state also determined that water supplies downstream from the fire
appeared to be safe, though they were still conducting additional tests.
In March, the state fined EQ $32,000 for six violations at the plant,
including failing to take steps to "minimize the possibility of a sudden or
non-sudden release of hazardous waste ... which could threaten human health or
Doyle cautioned the violations might not have had anything to do with the
fire, and the state said the company had passed a required inspection as
recently as Sept. 28-29.
Last year, a similar fire at one of the company's plants in Romulus, Mich.,
drove about 2,000 people from their homes and sent at least 32 people to
hospitals for treatment.
An investigation is still active, said Robert McCann, a spokesman for the
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He said in an e-mail that
extensive damage from the fire had made it difficult to determine a cause and
whether there were any violations at the plant.
It was unclear how many people fled, but several hundred took shelter at
schools, while others probably stayed with friends or at hotels, Weatherly said.
Beth Roach's family left their home about two miles from the plant around 3
"The bad part was that we didn't really know what was going on," she said.
"Ultimately, that's what made our decision to leave."
Scott Maris, the company's vice president of regulatory affairs, said EQ
would reimburse residents for expenses incurred during the evacuation.
"We're in grief to have created this inconvenience and misfortune for folks,"
Maris said. "We are doing everything we can to make it right in the community."