Fire smolders, evacuation scaled back

July 31, 2009 5:49:58 AM PDT
A chemical fire is still smoldering in the town of Bryan, 100 miles northwest of Houston. Overnight, HazMat teams were monitoring the air quality around the El Dorado Chemical Company on Highway 21.There is still a two-mile evacuation zone around the plant, where it's believed a welder's torch ignited ammonium nitrate and produced possibly toxic fumes just before noon yesterday.

Fire crews will return to the scene at 7am to continue their work.

Skyeye HD was the first to bring you pictures of the warehouse fire. At one point, most of the City of Bryan was under a mandatory evacuation order, but that was scaled back Thursday night.

A majority of the crews are taking a break and plan to resume their work Friday morning at 7am.

As for the evacuation of a nearly two-mile radius around the fire, it remains in effect.

As flames ripped through the El Dorado Chemical Company warehouse, spewing dangerous chemicals, just one home away, Coletha Hall just watched. The 89-year-old was trapped in her house for six hours without transportation and without power.

"It didn't bother me. I didn't know what was going on. I was just there," said Hall.

The fire released massive amounts of ammonium nitrate and forced a major evacuation. Firefighters were unable to close to the blaze because of the danger.

"Our goal is to get to the fire, get water on the fire as quickly as possible. In this situation, water is not our friend," said Bryan Fire Department Chief Mike Donoho.

Agencies from across the state were called in to assess the situation. The Environmental Protection Agency ordered a fly-over of the fire to test the air quality.

"We're providing that data to the unified command for them to make decisions about their evacuation," said Nancy Jones of the EPA.

By early Thursday evening, the fire seemed under control.

"It appears that the fire has burned itself out, but it continues to smolder," said Chief Donoho.

Some residents were allowed back in. About the same time firefighters learned that Hall was still trapped in her home. They rushed to her aid to get her out.

"We got her water and got her some aid, so she's doing pretty good now," said Keith Cook of the Brazos County Precinct 4 Fire Department.

Crews will remain on the scene throughout the night to watch for hot spots and will resume work at daybreak.

El Dorado Chemical issued a statement which read, "While we are thankful there are no injuries, we deeply regret the inconvenience this incident has caused to residents and businesses."

Two employees were in the warehouse when the fire broke out, but they escaped unscathed. A nearby business with 50 employees evacuated with no injuries as well.

Eyewitness News has learned nine people have been treated for respiratory ailments or smoke inhalation possibly related to the fire.

The plant is located about three-fourths of a mile west of Bryan.

The evacuation

Texas A&M University opened up Reed Arena and Pearce Pavilion for evacuees and their pets. School spokesperson Lane Stevenson says those facilities were used as evacuation centers during Hurricane Rita and Katrina. Meantime, the school itself is taking measures to keep students and faculty safe.

"The university is being closed and classes canceled as a precautionary measure," said Stevenson, who said classes would resume on Friday.

Stevenson says to check the school's website for updates on the status of classes.

Chief Donoho announced just before 7pm, "We are going to open up the majority of our city. There is a portion of our city that is still going to be closed."

An area around the facility that was burning remains closed. The area is defined by the following borders: Highway 21 west from Harvey Mitchell Parkway to Highway 47, Leonard Road from Harvey Mitchell Parkway to Highway 47, Sandy Point Road from Harvey Mitchell Parkway to OSR, and OSR from Sandy Point to Highway 21 west.

Some residents sought shelter after leaving their homes at Reed Arena on the Texas A&M University campus.

At the height of Thursday's evacuation there were about 1,000 evacuees at Reed Arena. That number has been scaled back to about 20 Thursday night as they have reduced the evacuation area. Hundreds more are filling local hotels.

It was far too close for comfort for Ray Jones at his home.

"The biggest cloud of smoke I had ever seen in my life. It was pitch-black dark," said Jones. "You could hear it burning."

The father focused on getting his children away from the fire then had to make a trip to the hospital to be checked out. Jones was one of hundreds seeking a cool shelter at Reed Arena.

At hotels across College Station, there was no more room.

"I'm sorry we don't have any more rooms available," said a Holiday Inn employee.

Jennifer Auston and her husband Frederick had to leave work and get the kids from day care.

"It's been a stressful afternoon, let me tell you," said Auston. "I have an 11-year-old and I have a one-year-old so I'm going to think about them first."

Bini Moore's attention was on her grandchildren.

"It's kind of scary because you don't want to mess with a chemical spill. With little kids, you won't want to take any chances," said Moore.

Back at Reed Arena, many families anxiously awaited word it was safe to return home. When we met Kimberly Worthy and her family she had just received word they could go home at last.

"I've never been in a hazardous situation. I'm just glad that it's over with and hopefully they know what they're dealing with because airborne things scare the living daylights out of me," said Worthy.

Part of the reason for the difficulty finding rooms was that a national softball tournament was in town to play at Texas A&M.

As for the 20 families that are still at Reed Arena, the Red Cross is working on finding a place for the them to stay Thursday night.

What is ammonium nitrate?

Ammonium nitrate is a pretty common chemical and some of you may handle it pretty often. It is one of the biggest ingredients in fertilizer, but under the right conditions, it is incredibly explosive and potentially harmful.

It's a powder and it doesn't catch fire, but ammonium nitrate can explode and Thursday afternoon at the El Dorado Chemical Company it likely did. That brown smoke is what you get when the chemical burns.

"The compound can be very dangerous," said Capt. Michael Byrd of the Houston Fire Department.

Capt. Byrd, an HFD hazardous materials expert, told us this chemical is all over and when stored safely creates no problems. However, once it starts burning, ammonium nitrate creates toxic smoke which irritates people's eyes, nose and throat.

"It's a respiratory irritant, skin irritant, you don't want to ingest it. It can be poisonous in some situations," said Capt. Byrd.

According to its website, El Dorado Chemical offers customs blends of fertilizers from its Bryan location. There were likely several other chemicals on site, and that too caused potential hazards for firefighters, the most serious danger the sheer power of this stuff.

That power is no surprise. Ammonium nitrate was used to make the powerful explosive that brought down the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 and caused nearly 600 deaths in a 1947 Texas City ship explosion.

The chemical is common, but under the right circumstances very volatile.

"As a whole ammonium nitrate is not flammable, something caused this to catch on fire," said Capt. Byrd.

As fires like this one burn, they create their own heat and energy, spreading the fire even if the original heat source is removed.