With Valdosta fire investigators interviewing two hospitalized employees Monday, the Valdosta Fire Department moved closer to determining the cause of a fire and a series of explosions last week at an industrial plant facility.
Meanwhile, soil, water and air monitoring have so far revealed no contamination from the Aug. 14 chemical fire at Perma-Fix, 1612 James P. Rodgers Circle, in the Azalea East Industrial Park, said Valdosta Fire Department Chief J.D. Rice.
Perma-Fix of South Georgia employees Charlie Curry and Stan Williams were still hospitalized Monday from injuries sustained during the incident. Though he did not name them, Rice said the two employees were in “stable but guarded condition ... stable enough to give interviews.”
VFD fire investigators traveled Monday to Shands in Gainesville to meet with the two hospitalized employees.
Completion of these interviews could lead to a cause of the Aug. 14 chemical fire and explosions being determined by today, the fire chief said.
“We see no indicators of foul play in this case,” Rice said. “All indicators point toward an accident.”
Rice listed three possibilities for the incident’s cause:
• A chemical reaction resulting in “spontaneous combustion.”
• Metal striking metal causing an unexpected spark that ignited.
• A machine’s engine may have overheated.
Investigators are also still attempting to determine if the fire started first and triggered the explosions, or if something exploded first then started the fire.
Fire officials have reported the incident started as employees were mixing chemicals. Perma-Fix of South Georgia stores and disposes hazardous and non-hazardous materials; these chemicals include arsenic, chloroform, methyl ethyl ketone, vinyl chloride, benzene, etc.
Employees were reportedly using acetone, said Rice who described it as a volatile substance that could easily ignite under certain conditions.
At 2:22 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 14, Valdosta Fire Department received a call regarding a fire and explosions at the Perma-Fix site in the industrial park. VFD leaders called all on-duty city firefighters to the location and requested mutual aid from Lowndes County and Moody Air Force Base firefighters. Dozens of off-duty VFD firefighters also answered the call.
Visible from several miles away, a black column of smoke rose from the site. Numerous explosions punctuated the air. Area law-enforcement blocked roads and evacuated a mile radius of the fire location.
Rice said Monday fire investigators may never know how many explosions occurred during the incident’s intensive first hour but did say the blasts were caused by 35-gallon drums of various chemicals exploding.
Firefighters had the situation under control by approximately 4:20 p.m.
Rice was out of town attending a fire training conference in Chicago last week. He said he remained in contact with VFD and offered insight and instruction through an average of four calls per hour during the incident’s most intense instances and remained in touch until he could supervise the situation in person upon returning to town this weekend and to his office Monday.
During the weekend and Monday, environmental officials continued monitoring the soil around the site, the nearby waterways of Mud Creek and Mud Swamp, etc., and the air quality. The federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Environmental Protection Division will continue monitoring through next week.
“These tests are showing no adverse impact on the soil or waterways,” Rice said. “There’s no indication that air quality has been affected.”
Perma-Fix had monitors already in place and these monitors have proven effective for gauging potential risks.
Rice said he’s proud of his firefighters’ response, on-duty and off, in an instance that could have been a major disaster. He is also appreciative of the help from Lowndes and Moody firefighting teams, law-enforcement’s help on scene, and Perma-Fix’s continued cooperation.