Residents return home after Bryan chemical fire

July 31, 2009 3:59:19 PM PDT
Residents in all but one community who had been evacuated because of a a still-smoldering chemical fire in Bryan have been allowed back to their homes. The only community still under an evacuation order is the Fairview community. Occupants of fewer than 100 homes there within a quarter-mile of the plant are being kept away.

Overnight, HazMat teams monitored the air quality around the El Dorado Chemical Company on Highway 21. Despite most of the evacuation order being lifted for most of the area, there's still a 4 to 5 mile stretch of Highway 21 that's closed. Power to that stretch of road, which had been turned off, has been restored.

It's believed a welder's torch ignited ammonium nitrate and produced possibly toxic fumes just before noon yesterday. Fire crews returned to the scene this morning and are now trying to put out the remaining hot spots.

Skyeye HD was the first to bring you pictures of the warehouse fire. At one point, most of the City of Bryan and parts of Brazos County were under a mandatory evacuation order.

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.

During 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. At the height of Thursday's evacuation there were about 1,000 people at Reed Arena.

Meantime, the school itself canceled classes yesterday, but reopened today.

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.

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