Fire at Leetsdale chemical plant leads to 70 homes being evacuated
November 17, 2015 5:57 PM
Firefighters face the smoke of the multi-alarm fire Tuesday at the Leetsdale Industrial Park.
A firefighter observes a fire burning at a partially collapsed building Tuesday in the Leetsdale Industrial Park.
Crews battle a multi-alarm fire in Leetsdale Industrial Park today.
Firefighters pour water on a collapsed building destroyed by a fire Tuesday in Leetsdale Industrial Park.
Crews on the scene of the fire at Leetsdale Industrial Park.
By Lexi Belculfine and Dan Majors / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Residents were evacuated from more than 70 Leetsdale homes Tuesday after a fire at a chemical manufacturing plant filled the sky with black smoke and noxious fumes.
Four workers at the Lubrizol Corp. Oilfield Chemistry site in the Leetsdale Industrial Park were adding chemicals used in gas well fracturing to a production tank about 10 a.m. when the fire exploded to life, a company spokesman said. The workers — and about 36 other employees — escaped the buildings, though five of the workers were injured.
Three were hospitalized, one for chemical burns and two with chest pains, but all were released later Tuesday, officials said. Two workers were treated on-site but refused hospital treatment.
Five-alarm industrial fire nearby at a chemical plant
The blaze at Weatherford Engineered Chemical Co., 180 Leetsdale Industrial Drive, was reported at 10:10 a.m. (Video by Bob Donaldson; 11/17/2015)
Three firefighters, from among the hundreds of emergency responders, also were hurt, officials said, before the fire was contained about 2:45 p.m. One had chest pains and was taken to a hospital but was later released. The other two were treated at the site.
Flames were only part of the problem: Overheated containers exploded and the air was poisoned by a plume of ammonium persulfate and sodium chlorite, both of which can cause respiratory problems, Allegheny County Emergency Services Chief Alvin Henderson said.
Emergency officials, who had prepared for just such a crisis, called for the evacuation of Washington Street, which runs north of the industrial park.
“You could smell it in your house. It was nasty,” said Yvonne Kass, 49, who has lived on Washington Street for more than 20 years and was among the evacuees who spent the afternoon in the Quaker Valley High School cafeteria. “I heard the fire siren, then I started hearing more and more emergency vehicles. And then I heard helicopters. When you hear helicopters, you know it’s something serious.”
The fire alarm went out at 10:11 a.m. and the response was immediate, in part because the fire chief, the police chief, the head of public works and the mayor were all in a meeting in the nearby Leetsdale Borough Building, finalizing plans for Saturday’s Snowflake Classic 5K run through the community. The borough building also houses the fire station.
“We knew it was bad because as soon as the alarm came, they all jumped up. It was obvious this wasn’t a false alarm,” said Joe McGurk, a member of the borough council and a Red Cross coordinator. “They were on the scene in 10 minutes. And we could see the flames and the black smoke from the building.”
Leetsdale Fire Chief Ernest Logan said his department is familiar with the site and has held drills there. The company annually provides lists of the chemicals it stores, as well as floor plans, which were “invaluable” to the firefighting operation, he said.
“We did not go in blind,” Chief Logan said.
An Allegheny County hazardous materials team also responded, and Pittsburgh River Rescue watched for outflow into the Ohio River,
Ralph Black, 51, who lives in the Tom Moore Apartments on Beaver Road, a couple of blocks away on a hill overlooking the industrial park, said he was awakened by the sound of several explosions and watched the fire from his back porch.
“Every few minutes you hear cans exploding — boom, boom, boom,” he said. “You can see the firemen squirting water on them, but they explode and the fire gets worse.”
Some explosions heard about noon were propane tanks on forklift trucks, Chief Henderson said.
Company officials and fire investigators said it may be days before the cause of the blaze is known.
“We’ve been running this process for about a year and a half now and had no issues,” plant manager Ed Michalowski said.
(Click image for larger version)
The company also issued a statement saying, “Protecting our employees, communities in which we operate, the environment and customers is fundamental to our business.”
John Poister, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection’s southwestern region, said an annual inspection of the site last fall “found that the company was very much in order — the storage, the way that the materials were handled and the record-keeping were all fine.”
The roof of the building where the fire started collapsed, Chief Henderson said, and a second building was damaged by fire, water and smoke. Firefighters hosed down six other buildings to prevent hot embers from igniting them.
Mr. McGurk said the borough launched its evacuation plan and called out a shelter team. Traffic on nearby Route 65 was rerouted and buses were dispatched to take Washington Street residents to the high school, the borough building’s community center (for people with pets), and, if necessary, the local YMCA for overnight stays.
But authorities issued an all-clear about 3 p.m.
Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, issued a statement saying despite the chemicals involved, there did not appear to be any immediate risk to the public.
“Our monitors have not shown any levels of concern and are not expected to,” she said.
“Winds should continue to remain fairly brisk out of the southerly directions even overnight, so we do not anticipate Allegheny County will receive much impact or elevated readings.”
“Everything went rather well. It could have been a lot worse,” said Leetsdale Mayor Pete Poninsky.
Joe Marrone, director of administrative services for the Quaker Valley School District, said there were a couple of reasons why the response was quick and effective. First, the community has seen evacuations before — after the Hurricane Ivan flood of 2004 and the massive snowstorm of 2010.
“Also, we’re not too big and we work hand in hand with each of our municipalities,” he said.
“We’re all on a first-name basis, we’ve all got each other’s cell phone numbers. So if someone needs something, we share a lot of resources and work together.”
Michelle Frizzell, 46, who also lives on Washington Street, said she didn’t want to evacuate her home, but a policeman’s knock on her door — and the smell of the smoky fumes — persuaded her otherwise.
“The smell was getting worse,” she said at the high school evacuation site. “I have a headache, but it might just be because of the stress.”
Lexi Belculfine: firstname.lastname@example.org and 412-263-1878. Dan Majors: email@example.com and 412-263-1456.