Blowtorch sparks building blaze

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 28, 1999

SOUTH POINT – Residents awoke Saturday morning to find their village covered in a smog-like haze as smoke continued to cloud the air above the former South Point Ethanol Plant’s water filtration building.

Saturday, August 28, 1999

SOUTH POINT – Residents awoke Saturday morning to find their village covered in a smog-like haze as smoke continued to cloud the air above the former South Point Ethanol Plant’s water filtration building.

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At about 4 p.m. Friday, firefighters from 10 departments responded to reports of high flames and thick, black smoke streaming from a building on the plant’s property. Welders from a salvage company contracted by Biomass, a company currently leasing the property from Ashland Inc., inadvertently started the blaze that took more than two days to extinguish.

The acrid smoke poured into the sky, blanketing the area in dark cloud as fire departments maintained a flow of about 5,000 gallons of water per minute pulled from the Ohio River, officials said.

"I was working on the computer and I noticed it getting dark outside," South Point Village Council member David Classing said while on the scene. "My first thought was that it was going to rain."

Emergency vehicles, firefighters, Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department deputies and village police officers worked to secure the area and to extinguish the flames well into the early hours of Saturday morning.

But the real danger was not from the burning building, South Point Volunteer Fire Department assistant chief Tom Daniels said.

Ten railroad tanker cars filled with Liquid Propane Gas (LP) lined the railroad tracks just 50 feet from the blazing building, presenting a real threat of a chain reaction of explosions, Daniels said.

"When we arrived on scene, the structure was fully involved, and of course, our initial concern was to get in there and keep those LP tanks cool," Daniels said. "The command staff that was there was very concerned about it and that was our number one priority – to make sure those tanks did not get hot."

As the fire continued to blaze out of control, firefighters kept a watchful eye out for the threat of explosion.

"The liquid inside the tank becomes hot and changes from a liquid to a gas, and it’s just like a pressure cooker," he said. "The gas expands until the tank cannot hold it anymore and then it blows. But the tanks are better insulated these days than they were a decade ago, and that helped the situation."

Meanwhile, village residents turned off air-conditioning units and closed their doors and windows to block out the smoke’s pungent odor.

"This building was a trickling tower, used to filter water through large plastic filters. The filters looked a lot like big, plastic bails of hay," village administrator Pat Leighty explained. "The filters removed any remaining solids from the water and cleaned it so it could be returned to the river safely. The smell from the smoke isn’t anything toxic; that’s just burning plastic we’re smelling."

Despite the smoke and related odor, evacuation remained unnecessary, although officials kept a vigil throughout the incident, South Point Mayor Bill Gaskin said.

"This building wasn’t used for anything that would cause village residents to worry," Gaskin said. "Evacuation was never a factor. It doesn’t smell very nice, but it isn’t dangerous to anyone."

Residents east of the plant and as far away as Burlington were notified by Lawrence County Emergency Management Agency officials of a shelter-in-place order that was lifted by midnight.

Until Norfolk-Southern removed the propane tanks at about 7:30, p.m., however, the firefighters’ primary focus continued to be controling the blaze while protecting the tanks, said Dewey Derifield, Perry Township Volunteer Fire Department chief.

"That was our primary mission – to go in and protect the propane tanks, keep them from catching on fire or exploding," Derifield said. "The tanks have a safety valve on them, just like any other propane tank, and we kept them cool. They never did vent or anything like that."

Crowds of curious residents, workers from the nearby 7-Up Bottling Co. and South Point Little League players watched from relative safety as the flames continued to engulf the building.

Although the plant and most of its adjoining property is situated within Perry Township limits, Lawrence County 911 dispatchers notified South Point Volunteer Fire Department on the original call-out, Derifield said. First to arrive, the South Point station retained incident command throughout the ordeal, including Saturday morning’s rekindling, he added.

"There were several departments there, departments from all over our county as well as from West Virginia and Kentucky, and we were on the scene until well after 1:30 (Saturday) morning," he said. "Apparently, we had some rekindling occur (Saturday morning), and we had to go back out onto the scene and get that under control."

When the flames started again, firefighters were not surprised, Daniels said.

"This is very much like a tire fire in that it will continue to smolder for several days," Daniels said. "The rekindling was under control relatively quickly; it was minor."

Ten fire departments from three states worked together in near-perfect synchronization to keep the propane tanks from exploding and to extinguish the blaze, Daniels added.

In addition to South Point and Perry’s Sheridan station, Chesapeake-Union, Coal Grove, Fayette No. 2 and Burlington-Fayette volunteer departments responded from Lawrence County, while England Hills, Summit-Ironville and Westwood volunteer departments from Kentucky and Ceredo Volunteer Fire Department from West Virginia responded from neighboring states.

"We had great cooperation among all agencies involved," Daniels said. "All the fire departments worked very well together; the operation went very smoothly and everything fell into place."