Though no foul play is expected, federal ATF agents, Valdosta Fire Department arson investigators and police detectives are working the fire site today as an expected process of eliminating all possibilities as they determine the cause, according to the VFD.
Two employees remain hospitalized today and one has been treated and released.
By Kristin Finney, Dean Poling, Stuart Taylor & Kay Harris
The Valdosta Daily Times
A series of explosions and a fire severely injured three people Wednesday afternoon at an incident in an Azalea East Industrial Park facility that processes and disposes hazardous and non-hazardous waste.
At 2:22 p.m. Wednesday, Valdosta Fire Department was called to Perma-Fix of South Georgia, Inc., 1612 James P. Rodgers Circle, regarding reports of a chemical explosion, according to the City of Valdosta.
Nearby spectators who heard the initial blast said it was not “that loud.”
Michael Rogers, owner of nearby Vanguard Aviation, said he first thought the noise was thunder. Then described the explosive sounds as “similar to Air Force bombers on a bombing run.”
Some onlookers said they believed the fire was under control before firefighters arrived. This was not the case.
Perma-Fix processes and disposes chemicals, such as items in aerosol cans, ink paste and other materials. Due to the chemicals in the plant, more explosions followed in a series of repeated bursts for the next 30-40 minutes, with less occasional explosive sounds well past an hour after the initial call.
Forty Valdosta firefighters responded to the scene, according to the city. Additional emergency responders arrived to assist the Valdosta Fire Department. Lowndes County Fire Department provided aid. Moody Air Force Base sent eight firefighters, a ladder truck and a duel-wield truck that shoots both water and foam. Florida fire departments, such as Live Oak Fire Rescue, offered and sent firefighting crews.
South Georgia Medical Center sent three ambulances to the scene, according to the hospital. At least three people were severely injured in the blasts, said Valdosta Police Chief Brian Childress. LifeFlight helicopters transported all three injured people to the hospital, though the chief was not certain if they were transported to a local or other hospital. Neither authorities nor Perma-Fix officials released the names of the injured as of Wednesday evening.
Outside, Valdosta Police Department, the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office and the Georgia State Patrol established a perimeter around the industrial park.
As the explosions and fire continued, officials were unable to initially cut off gas in the area. One neighboring business owner reported that underground gas tanks increased the situation’s hazardous potential. Firefighters and onlookers could smell gas in the smoke. Some firefighters made respiratory complaints from fighting the fire.
Authorities evacuated the area and closed the Azalea East Industrial Park. Thoroughfares such as Gil Harbin Industrial Boulevard were closed. Portions of Madison Highway and Old Clyattville Road were closed.
Authorities rerouted traffic. Nearby Lowndes Middle School released students at the regular time Wednesday afternoon, according to Lowndes County School System, but with traffic diverted, some parents reported their children’s buses arriving home later than usual.
Thunderstorms released an afternoon shower on the scene, with some people at a distant from the site, mistaking the sound of thunder for more explosions. Given that the smoke pillar rising from the site could be seen from miles away, it seemed a reasonable mistake.
A command post was established by responders at the public works office located at Gil Harbin.
Meanwhile, a series of unrelated fires were reported in other areas of the city, including one on Baytree, another on Norman Drive, etc., but these incidents were not fully involved cases.
By approximately 5 p.m. Wednesday, the industrial park had been stabilized though firefighters continued working the scene into the evening.
A cause of the initial explosion was undetermined Wednesday evening.
Ann Smith, Perma-Fix communications director, stated that the company is “taking the incident very seriously and is focusing on the safety and security of our employees and the community.”
In an email, she said the company was operating normally when the fire began and there will be a thorough investigation into the cause of the blaze as soon as the site is cleared.
Smith said the company would release additional information as more facts are known. As of Wednesday, she had no additional information on the injured employees.
Perma-Fix processes and disposes of chemicals including arsenic, chloroform, methyl ethyl ketone, vinyl chloride, benzene, etc. The company has been located in Valdosta since 1974.
In February, Valdosta firefighters responded to a fire at Perma-Fix, which required the use of foam to keep chemicals from running off into a nearby waterway.
Authorities continue working the site into Wednesday evening. Neither Perma-Fix officials nor fire investigators have released a possible cause for the initial explosions and fire.
Identities of three people reported injured have not been released.
Updated 5:43 p.m.: The City of Valdosta released the following statement:
The City of Valdosta Fire Department responded to a chemical explosion on August 14 at PermaFix Environmental Services, located at 1622 James Rodgers Circle. The call came in at 2:22 p.m. and within minutes more than 40 firefighters and other first responders were on scene. The fire was under control by 4:30 p.m. with the assistance of the Lowndes County Fire Department and the Moody Air Force Base Fire Department. Also responding with aid were the Valdosta Police Department, Lowndes County Sheriff’s office, the Georgia State Patrol and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Due to the nature of the chemicals at the facility, the area was evacuated within a one-mile radius. At least three injuries have been reported, but no fatalities are known at this time.
The fire is under investigation. An update will be provided when more information is available.
Updated 5:02 p.m.: Valdosta Police Chief Brian Childress reports three people severely burned in the 2:22 p.m. explosion and resulting fire at Perma-Fix this afternoon. All three injured persons were flown out of the site by Lifeflight, though the chief did not know where they were taken. Only three injuries are known at this time.
A cause of the explosion and the resulting series of explosions and fire has yet to be made public, or possibly determined. Fire under control, according to reports.
Georgia State Patrol reports that Old Clyattville Road is now open along with Madison Highway. Times staff at scene reports Gil Harbin Boulevard reopened.
Updated 4:39 p.m.: Madison Highway is again open to traffic, according to the Georgia State Patrol. GSP uncertain if Old Clyattville Road has reopened.
Lowndes County School reports that Lowndes Middle School practices cancelled on campus this afternoon. The Times has received reports that some school buses have been delayed due to roads being blocked and traffic being re-routed. LMS released students for the day on schedule.
Updated 4:03 p.m.: Local and regional firefighters continue battling blazes at the Gil Harbin Industrial Park. No explosions have been reported in recent moments. No word if rain showers have helped curb the blaze.
Moody Air Force Base has joined the fray. Moody sent two firetrucks with 8 firefighters total. One ladder truck and one duel wield truck that shoots foam and water.
South Georgia Medical Center dispatched three ambulances to scene. Still no word on a possible number of injuries.
Industrial park remains evacuated and shut down. With firefighters, emergency and rescue crews still working the situation, no information is yet forthcoming on the explosions’ cause.
Updated 3:35 p.m.: One lifeflight observed by Times staff at scene. No confirmed reports of injuries. Industrial park evacuated. A wider perimeter established around the fire and blast site.
Nearby Lowndes Middle School loading buses and and parents' cars now for the regular end of the school day. Valdosta Regional Airport reports business as usual. No word on evacuations for businesses surrounding the industrial park.
Updated 3:06 p.m.: Explosions continue from Perma-Fix at the Gil Harbin Industrial Park. Times staff at the scene reports that the industrial park is being shut down. Emergency personnel are attempting to turn off gas mains at the site, according to preliminary reports.
No injuries reported at this time.
A series of explosions have been reported this afternoon in the Gil Harbin Industrial Park, from the Perma-Fix of South Georgia, according to preliminary reports.
Times staff at the scene reports explosions continuing, black smoke rising above the park. Several ambulances are on standby, though no reports of injuries. Moody Air Force Base personnel has been called to the scene.
Perma-Fix processes wastes, both hazardous and non-hazardous; these materials include aerosol cans, ink paste, etc. The business suffered a fire earlier this year.
The Times will update as more information becomes available.