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.