Explosion fears persist as North Carolina fertilizer plant burns

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WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (AP) — An out-of-control fire at a fertilizer plant in North Carolina continued to burn Wednesday, forcing firefighters and thousands of evacuated residents to stay at least one mile (1.6 kilometer) because there could be a big explosion.

Fire officials said they could not predict when the blaze might die. And they didn’t know how many people actually responded to calls to evacuate. Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines said the city stands by its position by calling the requests to leave the area “recommended action.”

“The fact is, at the start of this incident, there was enough ammonium nitrate on hand to make it one of the worst explosions in United States history,” the fire chief said. of Winston-Salem, Trey Mayo, at an afternoon press conference. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper was also present.

“Our evacuation capability is limited,” Mayo said. “And that’s why we asked people to leave voluntarily.”

The fire is in the fertilizer plant of the Winston Weaver Company, north of the city of 250,000 inhabitants. The blaze started on Monday evening, sending bright orange flames and thick plumes of smoke into the sky.

The fire quickly consumed the entire building, collapsing it. At least 90 firefighters had fought the blaze for about 90 minutes on Monday. But the risk of explosion forces them to retreat. No injuries were reported.

Since then, drones and a helicopter have been monitoring the fire, and firefighters are on alert. A state police helicopter would fly over the scene Wednesday afternoon, Mayo said.

Officials initially thought the situation could end in 36 hours or even two days. But Mayo abandoned any predictions, saying there were “too many products, too many unknowns”.

About 500 tons (454 metric tons) of combustible ammonium nitrate were stored at the plant, and nearly 100 tons (91 metric tons) more of the fertilizer ingredient was in an adjacent wagon. That’s more chemical than there was in a deadly explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant in 2013 that killed 15 people, Winston-Salem fire officials said.

“Ammonium nitrate has always been unpredictable. … It’s just kind of a puzzle,” Mayo said. “And we’re giving it the attention it deserves because of its history.”

The area that was evacuated includes about 6,500 people in 2,500 homes, officials said. Wake Forest University, most of which is just outside the evacuation zone, canceled classes and urged students in dormitories to stay indoors with windows rolled up.

Authorities have warned of smoke and poor air quality in the city. Matthew Smith, a hazmat expert with a regional task force in the state, said the gases released by the fire are more irritating than anything that could cause serious harm, unless a underlying lung disease.

Dr Eric Sadler, a dentist whose practice is just outside the evacuation zone, said staff had expressed reservations about coming to work for fear of the factory and the possibility of an explosion.

“Some of them were reluctant to come today because of that,” Sadler said Wednesday. “I didn’t do any arm twists. I told them it was their choice and I understood if they didn’t want to come.

Sadler said his biggest concern is for people who live within a 1-mile radius.

“I worry about their homes or people who have homes to come back to if this explosion actually happens,” he said. “It’s a huge concern for me because it will be 6,000 people who will be homeless and displaced.”

The fire also forced the evacuation of the headquarters of The Truth Network, a Christian broadcasting company that owns radio stations in North Carolina, Ohio, Utah and Virginia. It also syndicates radio programs across the United States.

The network airs pre-recorded shows instead of its live programming because radio hosts can’t come to the studios, according to Truth Network owner Stu Epperson Jr., who lives in Winston-Salem.

But Epperson, 51, stressed that he and his colleagues were much more concerned about firefighters and people who live nearby. Many listeners pray for them.

“We really pray for God’s protection and that nothing blows up,” Epperson said. “Our prayers go out to all of the neighbors, residents and people from the fertilizer plant who have been displaced, and especially to our first responders and firefighters.”

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Finley reported from Norfolk, Virginia.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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