Fire destroyed 2,500 recycled industrial plastic and metal containers Wednesday afternoon at Container Recycling Inc. on Cockrell Avenue near Southwest Decatur.
The Decatur Fire and Rescue Department is investigating the 1:15 p.m. blaze, but a co-owner of the 10-year-old, family owned company said he received a report from an employee who saw an unauthorized person on Container's property.
No one was injured in the blaze that the Fire Department managed to keep away from the main building. Three firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion at the scene.
Five trucks were at the site during the height of the blaze which drew gawking motorists who created traffic snarls until police arrived to straighten out the congestion.
"One of the kids that works for me said he saw someone around the totes (plastic containers) that shouldn't have been there," said Pat O'Brien, who co-owns Container Recycling with his father, Bill O'Brien, sister, Cindy Sandoval, and brother-in-law, Bobby Sandoval.
Pat O'Brien was trying to stay positive despite his loss. At an average of $150 for each container, his losses could reach about $375,000. The company does have insurance.
"God was good to us," O'Brien said. "He kept our building from going down, no one was injured, none of the firemen was hurt. It could have been a bad, bad scene."
O'Brien and the department's fire marshal, Dwight Walden, said they did not know how the blaze started. Container employee D.O. Foster said he was hauling three containers with the forklift when he saw the blaze.
"I saw the smoke coming from the backside of the property, and I went to get some help," Foster said.
Foster said he did not see any unauthorized people on the property. He and fellow employees scrambled to move about a dozen propane tanks.
Lt. Steve Shelton, the Fire Department's lead investigator of the blaze, said this morning he is seeking a cause. The 275- and 330-gallon polyprophelene plastic and metal containers were mostly empty, except for residue of industrial dyes and ink.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management and the Morgan County Emergency Management Agency are helping Shelton analyze the chemicals in the containers.
Shelton said they are trying to find out if heat from the 90-degree day ignited the blaze. He said he "was not at liberty to say at this point" if there's a possibility of arson.
'Not ruling out anything'
"We're not ruling out anything," Shelton said.
Flames billowed off the approximately 3-acre property, located between Moulton Road and Montgomery Street behind McCollum's Catfish and Seafood Restaurant. The black smoke could been seen as far away as Madison.
Elizabeth Cagle was inside her Cockrell Avenue home when she heard repeated "bangs" that sounded like wood boards clapping together. She ran outside to see what happened and said she couldn't believe the spectacle.
"The smoke was up and so big, it was like the whole world was on fire. It looked like there was a tornado up in it," she said.
The 10- to 15-mph winds blew the fire away from her house, but had the smoke come her way, she said they would have had to evacuate. Some neighbors were evacuated from their homes.
Walden said the westward wind actually aided the Fire Department in its fight to keep the flames out of a thicket of trees behind the property.
The department worked to keep the flames away from the building and a second group of containers on the west end of the property. Employees scrambled to remove computers and piles of business papers as the flames moved toward the building. The fire stopped at the end of containers about 20 yards away.
"If that fire had gotten into the woods, we would have had enormous trouble because of the heat that plastic generated," Walden said.
Walden also was worried the dark smoke would saturate Northwest Decatur's neighborhoods, but the winds kept it high above the city.
According to Walden, the biggest problem was the lack of a water supply near the business that is outside the city limits. The Fire Department had to use about 2,300 feet of hose to reach a hydrant at the Beltline Road service road entering Moulton Road.
The department let most of the blaze burn itself out before completely extinguishing the fire. After about 90 minutes, firefighters were putting out hot spots.
Company workers and firefighters also worked to contain recycled ink and dye that ran into the drainage ditches. O'Brien said he didn't think the chemicals were hazardous, but the Alabama Department of Environmental Management is analyzing the chemicals. A backhoe dug a hole to contain the purple liquid.
O'Brien said his company buys the industrial containers for between $25 and $80, refurbishes and resells them for up to $200.
"It's devastating, but not as much as it could have been if someone had gotten hurt," O'Brien said. "Of course, we always wonder what insurance will pay for, but we've lost a huge chunk of our inventory and the time needed to fill orders."
The Fire Department spent the night at the site. At about 12:30 this morning, Shelton said the fire rekindled on one spot, and it took about an hour to extinguish.