Fire Blazes In Rock Hill, South Carolina

More than 100 firefighters spent three hours Wednesday quelling a large blaze that erupted at a Rock Hill (Map) fuel distribution company after a motorist crashed his vehicle into a fuel bay.

No one was injured in the fire, which began at 4:02 p.m. at Culp Petroleum Co. on East Main Street, authorities said. The motorist who set off the fire, 58-year-old Marion McIlwain of Charlotte was not injured, Rock Hill police officer Tony Breeden said.

McIlwain, who is diabetic, lost control of his 1998 Dodge Ram pickup because his blood sugar was low, Breeden said. He was not cited in the wreck.

Between four and nine Culp employees were at the site when the fire began. McIlwain escaped from his Dodge Ram when it burst into flames. The others left the company property and fled across the street.

Authorities blocked off a 500-yard area and evacuated the nearby Belleview Square strip mall along with other local businesses, including a Kentucky Fried Chicken and AutoZone.

The fire had flames as high as 50 feet, and at its peak appeared to occupy the majority of the company's front parking lot. But authorities were seriously concerned with the potential devastation if the fire caused a cluster of nearby fuel tanks to explode. Another possible hazard, Suburban Propane, was located within 10 yards of the growing inferno.

City spokeswoman Jane Alleva said Culp's untouched fuel tanks included about 50,000 gallons of gasoline, diesel fuel, used oil and kerosene. Not far from the site of the blaze was another 70,000 gallons of fuel, she said.

Firefighters fixed their hoses on the large fuel tanks and a proprane tank, keeping them cool under the intense heat.

A Culp employee, Tim Fixl, 39, stood across the street as the fire destroyed the fuel bay and crept toward six, 20,000-gallon fuel tanks. A three-year employee of the company, Fixl feared for firefighters' safety if the blaze ignited the 18-foot-tall tanks.

Plumes of dark gray and black smoke covered the sky above the company. Before police moved onlookers and media members to a safer location, the heat of the blaze could be felt from across the street.

More than 45 firefighters from the Rock Hill Fire Department, including some who were off-duty, were at the scene. Five volunteer fire departments from York County also were present. The Charlotte Fire Department brought three tankers carrying foam to assist in the operation.

At 4:35 p.m., flames spread across the company's parking lot, nearly catching a ladder truck on fire. Firefighters backed the truck into the street, and battled the encroaching flames.

York County Emergency Management Director Cotton Howell and Mike Blackmon, chief of the Rock Hill Fire Department, stood in the street with other emergency personnel, discussing their plan of action.

A backhoe was brought to the scene to dig trenches around the company's chain-link fence. The trenches were used to prevent fuel runoff and to keep the fire contained. The ditches were filled with sand.

Authorities also turned off Culp Petroleum's underground fuel lines.

Two television news helicopters hovered overhead, and six ambulances dotted the strip mall parking lot across the street. It also was the first time York County used its mobile emergency operations center, a school-bused sized vehicle that acted as the communications center.

During a brief press conference at 5:50 p.m., Alleva warned a dozen or so media members to run if they heard three warning sounds from a horn.

"That means run," she said.

Shortly before 6 p.m., a loud boom was heard and the smoke grew thicker. Soon after, the flames subsided, exposing the six large fuel tanks, at least three of which had been charred by the blaze.

At 7 p.m., when fire officials said the blaze was extinguished, East Main Street remained closed off, and fire, police and emergency vehicles clogged the street. A layer of foam covered the fuel company's parking lot like a fresh coat of snow.

Wednesday night, officials said it was too early to say whether the fire would cause any environmental problems. A spokeswoman from the Department of Health and Environmental Control, Clair Boatwright, said a staff member from her department's emergency response team was at the scene.

Boatwright said DHEC was concerned with possible soil contamination and runoff.

Breeden said police had received numerous calls of an erratic driver in the area. McIlwain hit a street sign near Christopher Street as he traveled north, then drove over a median. He drove through a fence in front of Culp, and made several circles in the parking lot before hitting the fuel pumps, Breeden said.

After the collision, McIlwain was sitting down and crying, holding his head in his hands, said Jim Brettman, vice president of Culp.

When asked how much financial damage the fire caused, Brettman said he could not provide an estimate. The company has more than 100 employees, said Colby Mosier, one of the owners.