Originally created 05/25/04

Chemical warehouse fire forces evacuations east of Atlanta



CONYERS, Ga. -- A miles-long cloud of chlorine-tinged smoke from a chemical warehouse fire east of Atlanta prompted the evacuation of hundreds of homes and forced the temporary closure of a major interstate highway.

The fire broke out at about 4:30 a.m. at the warehouse owned by BioLab, which makes chemicals for swimming pools and cleaning products.

At least nine people were treated for respiratory problems, area hospitals reported. Rockdale Medical Center, about a mile from the explosion site, was sending new patients to other hospitals.

"You could feel the burning. You started feeling like you wanted to cough or throw up," said evacuee Ruby Knauers.

The plumes of gray, green and white smoke prompted evacuations of homes and businesses in Conyers, an east Atlanta suburb of about 10,000 people. A mile-and-a-half radius around the warehouse was affected, said Buzz Weiss, spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

"As the wind shifts we're changing things," Rockdale County Sheriff's spokeswoman Jodi Shupe said of the evolving evacuation area.

The state estimated the fire could burn into the evening, but fire officials said the blaze had been contained in the 400-foot by 500-foot warehouse. Multiple explosions were seen and heard at the warehouse before the fire was contained.

"Right now we're trying to keep everyone out of the smoke," said Mike Lee, Rockdale deputy fire chief.

It was not immediately clear how the fire started or what chemicals were burning, although authorities said chlorine was one of the chemicals involved. The strong smell of chlorine was evident in Conyers.

Authorities advised residents not leaving the area to shut their windows and turn off their air conditioning.

The fire slowed the morning commute into Atlanta. Several roads around the BioLab plant were closed for at least two hours. Interstate 20, a main east-west thoroughfare into Atlanta, was also closed during rush hour as smoke cut visibility.

"We want to apologize profusely for the disruption we've caused. There were no employees injured - that's what's most important to us," said Monty Eckles, vice president of Lawrenceville-based BioLab.

An area high school and elementary school were set up as temporary shelters for those evacuated and the Red Cross was helping with the effort.

"You could smell it. It looked like a fog rolling in. I figured discretion was the better part of valor," said Jeff Rutherford, who left his home with his wife, Jessica, and sought refuge in one of the schools. "I just hope the cats are still kicking when we get home."

By late morning, more than 100 people were at the schools, including senior citizens evacuated from the Magnolia Retirement Center and Starcrest Nursing Home.

"I just came to help old folks out of cars," said Barry Beers, who came to the high school to volunteer to help since his timber business was closed because of the fire.

At the elementary school, many watched live television footage of the fire, while snacking on tortilla chips, apples and sandwich cookies.

The school's classes ended for the summer Friday, but its library was opened so evacuated children could look at picture books and coloring books. Some played with toy cars.

Children, elderly and those with asthma, emphysema or other respiratory problems are at highest risk for problems associated with chlorine exposure, said Dr. Gaylord Lopez, director of the Georgia Poison Center.

The first sign of exposure to chlorine is a skin rash or irritation. Severe exposure leads to upper airway congestion.

"Once you start smelling the stuff, you're probably being exposed," Lopez said. Chlorine smells like a swimming pool.

Coughing, choking, gagging or wheezing could indicate a dangerous level of exposure and the possible onset of chemical pneumonia.

Associated Press reporter Charles Odum in Conyers contributed to this report.