Evacuees May Return Home After Chemical Fire East of Atlanta, Georgia

CONYERS, Ga. (AP) -- A chemical warehouse fire that sent a huge plume of chlorine-tinged smoke into the air and forced the evacuation of thousands of residents was slowly being extinguished early Wednesday.

Authorities hoped to allow residents to return to their homes Wednesday evening, but only if the wind and firefighting efforts kept the blaze and smoke at bay.

Several thousand residents were evacuated within a 1 1/2-mile radius of the fire that began around 4 a.m. Tuesday. Wednesday night about 500 people sought shelter in two local schools, Rockdale County Sheriff Jeff Wigington said.

Although the fire is still under investigation, Rockdale Fire Chief Henry Argo said Wednesday morning that nothing seemed suspicious.

The blaze at the BioLab Inc. warehouse was fueled by 125 tons of dry chlorine pellets. The smoke closed Interstate 20 for hours, and secondary roads near the warehouse were expected to remain closed well into Wednesday.

Wigington expanded the evacuation zone throughout much of Conyers and eastern Rockdale County, and only some of those areas were reopened by dawn Wednesday.

``We're dealing with wind issues. We're dealing with other chemicals if they come upon them,'' sheriff's office spokeswoman Jody Shupe said Wednesday. ``They're still sifting through all the matter that is within the fire, and as other issues arise, we'll have to handle them accordingly.''

Ruby Knauers, who was among thousands forced to leave their homes, said she left because the strong chlorine smell that permeated her house.

``You could feel the burning. You started feeling like you wanted to cough or throw up,'' said Knauers, who lives less than a quarter mile from the warehouse, where chlorine and other chemicals for pools and spas were stored.

State Insurance and Fire Commissioner John Oxendine called it the biggest fire in at least a decade in Georgia and predicted it could smolder for days.

No one was seriously injured in the fire, but the plume of gray, green and white smoke reached a half-mile wide and more than 10 miles long, clearing downtown Conyers and sending at least 300 to wait out the fire in public school cafeterias.

About 40 people went to hospitals complaining of burning eyes and lungs. Most were treated and released.

Fire officials described the plume as more irritating than dangerous, although the state Environmental Protection Division was monitoring air quality around the fire.

Argo said the blaze began with ``a variety of chemical reactions.'' He said it quickly overwhelmed the warehouse's sprinkler system and spread beyond fire-resistant walls.

Experts said the calcium hypochlorite, which is used to treat swimming pools and was stored in the warehouse, is not combustible, and does not ignite on its own. But once ignited, it can burn fiercely and produce noxious chlorine gas.

Many of the evacuees, including nearly 100 nursing home residents, fled their homes rather than attempt to wait it out by closing windows and turning off air conditioning. Temperatures neared 90 degrees during the day.

``We want to apologize profusely for the disruption we've caused. There were no employees injured - that's what's most important to us,'' said Monty Eckles, vice president of the Lawrenceville-based BioLab, which has 450 employees in Conyers.

An area high school and elementary school were set up as temporary shelters for evacuees, who whiled away the hot day playing board games and snacking on tortilla chips and apples, watching helicopter shots of the fire on local television stations.

The evacuation was voluntary, but officials asked people in the smoke plume to stay with friends instead of going home Tuesday night. They said the smoke cloud would settle after the sun set.

``You could smell it. It looked like a fog rolling in. I figured discretion was the better part of valor,'' said Jeff Rutherford, who left his home with his wife, Jessica, and sought refuge in one of the schools. ``I just hope the cats are still kicking when we get home.''