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Blaze Spews Chlorine Cloud

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  • Blaze Spews Chlorine Cloud

    The link below has photos and other info. They had firefighters from all over north-central CT, plus cops from all over doing traffic.

    Blaze Spews Chloring Cloud
    The Hartford Courant
    July 27, 2001

    MANCHESTER - There was a gust of wind and the building shook. Then Richard Adgers heard his boss yell, "Get out of the building!"

    A fire at the Namco pool supply distribution center sends chlorine-laden smoke billowing over Manchester neighborhoods Thursday afternoon. Residents in the area were evacuated soon after the blaze broke out.

    GRAPHIC: Area Where Homes And Businesses Were Evacuated - The Hartford Courant
    PHOTO GALLERY: Manchester Fire - The Hartford Courant
    ALSO: A Primer On Chlorine - The Hartford Courant
    Adgers and other workers headed for the doors of the NAMCO distribution center at 100 Sanrico Drive. As he ran, Adgers said he could feel intense heat on his back.

    Luis Rodriguez felt it, too. As he unloaded a truck, a cloud of dust filled the building.

    "Then we felt the building shake," Rodriguez said. "Then people said, `Get out!' I felt the heat. I ran. Everybody ran."

    The explosion and fire at the NAMCO distribution center Thursday afternoon heavily damaged the 197,000-square-foot building. Authorities evacuated nearby homes and businesses. Scores of residents were not expected to return to their homes until today. The fire, consuming pallets of swimming pool chlorine, was expected to burn through the night.

    Assistant Fire Chief Robert Bycholski said a cause for the fire had not been determined. Other officials said one possibility was that liquid had come into contact with chlorine, causing a chemical reaction.

    Despite the size of the fire and the dramatic cloud of smoke it sent skyward, no serious injuries were reported. Manchester's town manager called that "miraculous."

    Hospitals in Manchester and Rockville reported treating 14 people who complained of difficulty breathing or a burning sensation in their eyes, said Andrew A. Beck, a spokesman for Eastern Connecticut Health Network. Two of those treated said they were working at NAMCO, Beck said.

    Tons of pool chemicals were stored in the NAMCO building, including chlorine, a pool disinfectant, and muriatic acid. Officials were concerned the fumes could seriously harm people. Shelters were set up in Vernon and Manchester for those forced to leave their homes.

    Lori Dusza, whose Grissom Road property abuts the NAMCO facility, didn't need an official to tell her to leave.

    "When I heard it was NAMCO, I said, `Let's get out of here - they make pool stuff,'" she said. Dusza said she saw flames and thick smoke from the deck in her backyard.

    "I saw this really big, orange thing in the sky," she said. "And the first thing that came to mind was, `Oh, there's a house on fire.' I saw these black clouds of smoke, sort of billowing up, and ... I made everyone get inside."

    Dusza said she also heard the "crackling" of several small explosions, but never heard any loud bangs or smelled chemicals.

    Firefighters quickly determined what chemicals were in the building and decided not to fight the fire immediately, but instead attempted to contain it and save other parts of the building.

    Putting water on the burning pool chemicals would have caused greater danger, said Richard J. Sartor, Manchester's town manager.

    Firefighters from around the region battled the NAMCO blaze Thursday afternoon as a thick poisonous smoke drifted on the wind.

    "If they would have used water on these chemicals they would have created toxic gases," Sartor said. Among them would have been chlorine, which is heavier than air and could have floated to the ground. "That would have been more dangerous to residents than the smoke."

    "We let it burn," Bycholski said. Firefighters focused their efforts on "trying to stop the fire that's burning from getting into the unburned areas."

    The fire began about 1:40 p.m. when an explosion blew out the back out of a chemical storage area at the rear of the NAMCO building. Pieces of the wall apparently blew into some backyards on nearby Grissom Drive.

    As the fire continued to burn into Thursday night, Bycholski said officials decided to evacuate the neighborhood closest to the NAMCO building because they feared another explosion.

    Normally vibrant neighborhoods were like ghost towns as people left their homes or were not permitted to return. The parking lots at the normally busy Big Y supermarket and Rite Aid pharmacy on Tolland Turnpike were empty Thursday evening. State police and the Department of Transportation also closed a portion of Route 83 and the I-84 off ramps that empty onto it.

    Four hazardous material technicians entered the burning building about 6:45 p.m. - the first emergency workers to go inside.

    They found four separate fires on what had been pallet loads of chlorine, said Neil Torres, an emergency response coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Protection. The chemicals had melted down over the pallets and were continuing to generate extreme heat. Nearby walls had buckled and the roof had collapsed. Torres said the situation was among the worst he's seen in a decade on the job.

    Mark DeCaprio, assistant director of DEP's chemical and oil spill response division, said as much as 20 tons of chlorine remain in the building.

    Late Thursday, officials decided to try to put the pallet fires out. An excavator was called in to knock down the back wall of the building and pull the burning piles of chlorine out, where firefighters then would extinguish them.

    "It's a very long and labor-intensive process," Bycholski said. "We're hoping by the time day breaks we will have put out most of the fire."

    Bycholski said officials decided to go after the fire because there were signs it was intensifying and they wanted to stop the spread of fumes.

    DEP officials worked through the day and into the evening assessing the fire's environmental impact. DEP staff, flying aboard the new state police helicopter, collected air samples every 20 minutes and tracked the path of the smoke plume. The plume contained both deep black smoke from burning plastic patio furniture and white smoke from the chlorine. DEP staff also checked the area for debris that was carried away by smoke.

    More than 150 firefighters, police and other emergency crews from throughout the capital region responded. Environmental Services Inc. of South Windsor was also called in. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration also sent an investigator.

    NAMCO distributes pool chemicals and other products to a network of 32 retail stores along the East Coast. NAMCO, an acronym for North American Marketing Corp., claims on its Web site to be the nation's largest dealer in swimming pools, products and accessories.

    NAMCO officials could not be reached for comment Thursday.

    Thursday's fire was not the first for a NAMCO facility. In April 1979, a chemical reaction in NAMCO's warehouse in Wethersfield caused a fire and spewed chlorine gas into the sky. In that incident, as in Thursday's, firefighters had to be careful not to wet chemicals stored in the warehouse for fear of compounding their problems. The 1979 incident was apparently caused when a liquid used in pool maintenance was accidently mixed with chlorine tablets. More than a dozen firefighters were injured in that incident.

    Staff writers Eric R. Danton, Lee Foster, Indraneel Sur, Paul Marks, Don Stacom and Lily Raff contributed to this story.
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