Although a fire at a hazardous-waste handling company was dying down Friday afternoon, Apex officials said they want to be sure the threat of contamination has been eliminated before allowing thousands of residents to return home.
Still, officials said late Friday afternoon that residents of the Haddon Hall subdivision could start heading back to their homes.
A leak at the EQ North Carolina plant on Investment Boulevard sent several large plumes of chlorine gas into the air around 9 p.m. Thursday. A large fire broke out at the plant afterward, sending flames more than 100 feet into the night sky and setting off multiple explosions.
EQ is a licensed hazardous-waste facility that repackages and disposes of chemicals for businesses. The exact materials involved in the fire are not known, but the plant handles materials like sulfur, pesticides and chlorine.
"It's really difficult to determine what happened," company spokesman Robert Doyle said. "We've been working with emergency responders, providing any information we can to help."
Twenty-five employees work in the plant, but they had all left by 7 p.m., Doyle said.
WRAL's Melissa Buscher, who was able to get near the plant site Friday morning, said the area smelled like "burned rubber." She also noticed smoldering debris and bent-up metal on Investment Boulevard.
Apex and Wake County officials declared a state of emergency early Friday and evacuated about 17,000 people -- more than half of the town -- within hours.
The evacuation area is bordered by U.S. Highway 1, N.C. Highway 55 and U.S. Highway 64. N.C. 55 was reopened to traffic Friday afternoon after being closed for several hours.
The chemical plume produced by the plant fire had spread across the town overnight, moving as far as the Eva Perry Library, near the intersection of U.S. 64 and Lake Pine Road. But officials said a steady rain Friday morning helped flush the contamination out of the air.
"The prognosis is optimistic as far as clearing the air," Mayor Keith Weatherly said. "The rain is potentially dissipating the particulates in the air."
Air quality sensors have detected no chemical residue in the downtown area, Weatherly said. But he and other officials said they don't want to give residents the all-clear signal until they are sure no contamination risk exists.
"We hope to signal our citizens as soon as possible, but only when it's prudent to do so," he said. "We don't want to give a false expectation."
Residents who live farthest from the plant likely would be allowed to return home first, and authorities would work in from the perimeter of the evacuation zone, he said. There was no timetable for the residents' return.
A hazmat team conducted a preliminary inspection of the plant Friday morning and found that small fires continued to burn inside the collapsed plant, Weatherly said. Team members then did a video inspection, and authorities determined a dry retardant was the best way to extinguish the fire, he said.
Firefighters stayed away from the blaze overnight because the combination of darkness and the chemical cloud made it too dangerous.
"This is the worst possible hazardous materials incident you could have," Town Manager Bruce Radford said.
Apex Fire Chief Mark Haraway said authorities have an inventory of chemicals stored in the plant, but they don't know what is burning inside because the building has collapsed.
State Secretary of Crime Control and Public Safety Bryan Beatty said the rain also increased the chance of contamination on the ground and in the water.
"Runoff of whatever chemicals are there is obviously a concern now," Beatty said, adding that crews are in place to contain the damage and test the quality of nearby water.
Initial tests Friday showed no contamination of any drinking water in the area, officials said.
Green Hope High School , at 2500 Carpenter-Upchurch Road in Cary, dismissed students at 9:35 a.m. to accommodate evacuees.
Hundreds of residents who were sent to Olive Chapel Elementary School and Turner Creek Elementary School overnight after being ordered to leave their homes were moved to Green Hope High after lunch, and those two shelters were shut down. Officials said they wanted to have a centralized shelter set up that could care for residents for several days, if needed.
The Wake County 911 center has received hundreds of calls regarding the Apex fire. Officials stressed that 911 should be reserved for emergency calls, and residents are urged to direct their non-emergency calls to the Wake County Emergency Operations Center at 919-856-7044 .
Many local schools also were closed Friday, officials said, and no school buses were running in Apex. Salem Elementary School and Salem Middle School were open, but parents had to arrange other transportation.
The fire is also causing changes involving high school football games for some Wake County schools. Some games will be played Friday night while others have been postponed until Monday.
Apex's central business district, including Town Hall, was closed Friday. Radford said anyone in the area without a legitimate reason would be arrested.
Radford warned residents wandering the streets late Thursday and early Friday to get inside, saying that walking in the smoke would endanger people's lives.
"There are all grades of contaminated materials in this smoke and the fire," he said. "If you see this smoke, get away from it."
Thirteen law enforcement officers and one firefighter were treated for respiratory distress at hospitals in Cary and Raleigh and released. Some had chemical burns on their faces, Weatherly said.
About 20 Apex residents complaining of respiratory difficulties went to the emergency rooms at Rex Hospital in Raleigh and WakeMed hospitals in Cary and Raleigh, officials said. They also were treated and released.
Also, 90 residents of Rex Rehabilitation and Nursing Care Center of Apex were brought to WakeMed Cary Hospital as a precautionary measure. About two dozen were later transferred to Rex because their doctors practiced there.
A state Medical Assistance Team set up a decontamination chamber outside the hospital for a brief time overnight in case firefighters, residents or others came in contact with hazardous materials.
Prolonged direct inhalation of chlorine gas can cause sickness or even death, authorities said. Chest pain, vomiting and difficulty breathing are among the symptoms that might be experienced.
Firefighters were unable to approach the blaze for hours after it ignited because of the explosions and hazardous chemicals.
"We want to get in there as quickly as we can, but we're not going to endanger anyone," Radford said early Friday. "Rather than put water or foam on the fire, it's better to let the fire burn itself out so we don't create a large hazardous area on the ground."
Weatherly said early Friday that the fire appeared to have spread to a nearby petroleum farm, igniting four storage tanks. But he said a subsequent review of the site proved that the fire never spread beyond the EQ plant.
A plane tried to fly over the plant early Friday morning to assess the situation but had to return to the airport because of adverse weather.
Authorities had to move their command post four times to get downwind of the explosions and gas plume. The town's 911 center was relocated from the police department downtown to Apex Elementary School.
Overnight flights at Raleigh-Durham International Airport were rerouted to at least 5 miles from downtown Apex to avoid the fire and explosions, officials said.
Authorities initially evacuated about 100 residences in the Briarcliff neighborhood and sealed off the area. Shifting winds moved the chemical plume in different directions throughout the night, forcing further evacuations.
The town used a reverse-911 system to call all residences in the evacuation zone to notify people that they needed to leave. Some residents close to the plant site weren't notified of the evacuation because the plume wasn't moving in their direction, so they weren't in danger, Haraway said.
The eastern half of Apex had been ordered to evacuate by midnight, including residents in the Haddon Hall, Surrey Meadows, Knollwood, Shepherd's Vineyard and Weatherford Green subdivisions. Residents in the Sterling Buckingham subdivison were added to the evacuation Friday morning.
"It was one of the most frightening moments I've ever had," one woman said of hearing the explosions and receiving the evacuation order.
Weatherly declared a state of emergency in Apex at about 12:30 a.m. Friday, and Wake County declared a state of emergency about two hours later for unincorporated areas around Apex.
The declarations will make it easier for the town to apply for federal emergency aid, if needed, officials said.
Weatherly defended the massive evacuation, saying he hoped officials would handle a similar situation the same way in the future.
"Our first priority will always be the health and safety of our citizens," he said. "You can't overshoot (on safety) with something like a chemical leak."
The Raleigh Fire Department Hazardous Response Team arrived at the scene shortly after 10:30 p.m. to aid Apex authorities. Over 300 firefighters from Raleigh, Cary, Holly Springs and other jurisdictions also assisted in the effort.
The state Air Toxics Analytical Support Team was brought to the area early Friday to help monitor the air quality following the chlorine gas leak and fire and develop a plan of action.
Firefighters spent much of the night making sure they had the proper equipment to handle various scenarios. Radford said authorities would rely on air quality experts to determine when it was safe to go back into the area around the EQ plant.
All residents within a one-mile radius of Investment Blvd and Sheffelein Road were initially sent to Olive Chapel Elementary on Olive Chapel Road. Those who weren't evacuated were asked to turn off their air conditioners and stay indoors with doors and windows closed until further notice.
About 250 residents had taken refuge at Olive Chapel Elementary by 4:30 a.m., and authorities opened a second shelter at Turner Creek Elementary. Officials also asked residents to seek temporary residence at hotels elsewhere in Wake County or with relatives.
Local Red Cross volunteers arrived at the shelters early Friday to provide food, water, blankets, cots and other items to evacuees.
"Schools are community centers, and we're here to serve the community," Olive Chapel Elementary Principal Melissa Burns said.
All school activities at Apex Elementary, Apex Middle, Apex High, Baucom Elementary, Lufkin Road Middle, Olive Chapel Elementary and Turner Creek Elementary schools were cancelled Friday, Wake County Schools officials said. St. Mary Magdalene School and several day-care centers also canceled classes.
EQ officials arrived at the scene early Friday and provided an inventory of the materials at the plant. Pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals were stored inside, Apex officials said.
The Wayne, Mich.-based company also set up a toll-free line at 888-675-1680 to provide assistance to residents impacted by the evacuation.
EQ offers services to a variety of institutions that have hazardous chemicals and other materials that must be disposed of according to state and federal regulations. The facility is federally licensed by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
Cregg Johnson, a truck driver who hauls materials to and from EQ, said he was sleeping in his tractor-trailer cab outside the plant Thursday night when a firefighter pulled him out to evacuate as part of the building was engulfed in flames.
"As we were headed off, barrels started blowing, and it just sounded like thunder," Johnson said. "I saw black smoke in the air and it was going south, and I told the firefighters I was heading north."
He said he had to leave his tractor-trailer full of flammable household chemicals, including paints and paint thinner, parked outside the plant.
State environmental officials fined EQ $32,000 in March for failing to minimize the possibility of a release of hazardous-waste materials or implement a contingency plan for a possible release.
Doyle, the EQ spokesman, said the fire was unrelated to the previous fine. The company has a "very robust" safety plan, including extensive training, he said.
Town officials were unaware of the fine and planned to discuss the matter with state officials, Weatherly said.
"It certainly would have been prudent for us to have been aware," he said.
But Weatherly said the town had no compliance issues with the plant and noted EQ had no violations in its latest state inspection, on Sept. 28-29. State regulators inspect the plant four times a month, he said.
A company at the same Investment Boulevard address, Enviro-Chem Environmental Services Inc., was fined $131,000 by state inspectors in February 2001 for a series of violations, including storing hazardous waste in an unpermitted area and failure to properly secure the facility.
In August 2005, a large explosion and fire rocked an EQ plant near Detroit. More than 1,000 nearby residents were evacuated.
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