Fire's Acid Renders South Carolina Firetruck Unusable

A city ladder truck used to fight Saturday's fire at Screen Tight is out of service because of exposure to hydrochloric acid, a chemical created by burning materials at the plant.

The $725,000 truck, purchased by the city in 1999, cannot be used because the toxic fumes damaged the vehicle's hoses and cables, city Fire Chief Joey Tanner said.

Firefighters' protective gear and safety equipment also was ruined by the smoke and flames, Tanner said.

Replacing the clothing, boots, face masks and air packs could cost the city about $60,000, he said.

The city already is facing a crisis in funding public-safety needs, including new firetrucks.

Tanner did not know if insurance will cover the cost of the city's ladder truck or other safety equipment.

The department also is having trouble with the pumper truck, he said.

"We have severe damage to the ladder truck," Tanner said. "We're still waiting for the manufacturer to see if it can be rebuilt."

Helmets, boots and protective clothing usually last about four years, Tanner said. Other safety gear can last about 10 years.

The lifespan is shortened by exposure to chemicals, he said.

Replacing the protective gear could cost about $12,000; buying new safety equipment could cost about $55,000, Tanner said.

The manufacturer has said the gear should be replaced, Tanner said.

The county's fleet of fire engines and tanker trucks also took a beating from the fire.

Smoke and flames coming from the plant damaged more than a dozen engines, cars and ladder trucks from across the county, Georgetown County Emergency Services Director Mike Mock said.

About 15 trucks and vehicles from the city and county were damaged, Mock said.

The byproduct of burning material used to make screen doors turned metal trim on firetrucks different colors and contaminated other vehicles, Mock said.

About six firefighters from Midway Fire Department had symptoms that could have been caused by inhaling hydrochloric acid.

No city firefighters were hurt, Tanner said.

The cause of the blaze still is under investigation by the the S.C. Law Enforcement Division's arson-investigation team.

City Council members heard the damage report after their regular meeting Thursday night.

Emergency officials are talking with insurance companies about the damage.

Damage estimates for the county vehicles was not known.

Georgetown City Council already is struggling with the need for a possible 5-mill tax increase to balance the budget and provide improvements to public safety this year.

First reading on the budget was passed Thursday night, with the understanding that more work is needed to cut costs.

Council members gave initial approval to a 2.5 percent increases in sanitation fees to balance the $9.8 million budget.

Costs for residential garbage pickup could cost $2.50 more a month.

The budget still includes money for renovating the Maryville Fire Station, at a cost of about $700,000, City Administrator Boyd Johnson said.

The budget also includes a 3 percent cost of living increase for city employees.

Council members asked Johnson to look for ways to trim the budget. The council must pass the budget by July 1.

Johnson said the city provides a "high level of service" when it comes to residential garbage collection.

"Most communities are going to once-a-week pickup," he said.

"We still think at $17.50 that this is still cheaper than the private sector. Going to once-a-week garbage pickup is a difficult sell in Georgetown. If you don't do this increase, we'll be $114,000 in the hole."

The council hopes to have second, and final, reading on the budget in June.

If a 5-mill tax increase is approved, the average homeowner would pay about $20 more a year in property taxes on a $100,000 home.

Garbage pickup would increase from $15 to $17.50 a month.

In other business, council members discussed ongoing problems with tram operators in the Historical District of Georgetown.

The tour operators share the public loading zone in front of the Georgetown Visitor's Center, but could be asked to move.

"Our office received numerous complaints," said City Planner Holly Richardson.

"It's getting pathetic when mature people are bickering over something petty," Councilman Rudolph Bradley said. "They are citizens of Georgetown and they have a right to make a living, but I don't think the staff should be subjected to this constant bickering."

Distributed by the Associated Press