RICHMOND, Ind. — Thomas Alverson stood in his yard Wednesday afternoon as heavy grey smoke reeking of chemicals and plastic billowed onto his property.
Alverson’s home stood on the edge of a half-mile evacuation zone set up by Richmond city officials Tuesday afternoon following a massive industrial fire. The blaze engulfed two buildings on a nearly 14-acre property containing piles of chipped, shredded and bulk recycled plastic, along with other unknown materials.
The plume pouring from the property could be seen for more than 15 miles away drifting across the empty fields of Wayne County in east central Indiana near the Ohio border.
Despite the choking fumes, Alverson didn’t plan to leave his home located just blocks from the site, which sits in the middle of a residential neighborhood near the city’s downtown.
“I’m watching my lungs,” the 55-year-old construction worker said. “I had cancer, so I know when I start feeling different in my lungs to get out.”
Up to 2,000 residents have been displaced by the blaze, which was reported at 2:40 p.m. Tuesday and quickly led to toxic smoke pouring from the warehouses owned by a former company called My Way Trading.
Terry Snyder Jr. and his parents were some of those people forced to evacuate. They spent Tuesday night sleeping in the gym of Oak Park Pentecostal Church, which housed an emergency shelter for those with nowhere else to go.
Sitting inside the gym by a table full of pizzas and drinks, Snyder recalled seeing the smoke plume after stepping outside of his house located almost directly beside the industrial site.
“I was like, ‘What the hell?’” said the 19-year-old Richmond native. “Then the adrenaline just took over.”
Snyder ran to homes where he knew elderly residents lived to make sure they were okay before police and EMA workers arrived on scene to evacuate the neighborhood.
Inside the gym, Snyder’s mom, Wendy, who has asthma, suffered a coughing fit she attributed to breathing in the smoke. His father, Terry Snyder Sr., has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and said the plume also aggravated his condition.
It’s residents like the Snyders that local health officials worry will suffer the worst health affects from the smoke. That’s why city officials continue to urge residents to stay away from the fire zone and out of the evacuation areas, according to Wayne County Health Department Director Christine Stinson.
“It is for your safety that the evacuation zone is there,” she said during a press conference Wednesday morning. “If you’re in the smoke, if you can see the smoke, get out of the smoke.”
As the fire cooled Wednesday afternoon, the plume drifted lower and lower as it rolled east across the city, darkening some city streets in dark smoke. Miles away, the cloud was clearly visible floating near Reid Health Hospital.
That smoke cloud will likely continue for days as fire crews continue to work to fully extinguish the acres of smoldering plastic, which often flares up and is difficult to manage, according to David Hosick, director of public affairs for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.
That smoke has made it impossible for fire investigators to safely access the site to determine how the blaze started, and it could still be days before that happens, he explained.
“They’re very concerned about making sure that it’s to a level that’s safe enough to start doing some investigation,” Hosick said.
Rubbish and plastic only allowed crews one entry point into the buildings on Tuesday, but excavators were on site Wednesday to clear away debris to allow firefighters to get closer to the heart of the blaze, noted Richmond Fire Chief Tim Brown.
Still, crews successfully stopped the fire from spreading beyond the property and into the residential neighborhood surrounding it.
“We combated the winds and the intensity of the flames,” Brown said during Wednesday’s press conference. “Our efforts were successful. The fire did not get into residential areas.”
Richmond Mayor Dave Snow said the former plastic warehousing site was a known fire hazard and city officials worked for years to force the owner to clean up the property. That included the city buying a small parcel on the lot in a tax sale as part of an effort to accelerate the cleanup, he said.
Following the blaze, Snow placed the blame squarely on the property owner for failing to take action despite orders from the city. He said an investigator had already contacted the owner about the fire.
“Everything that’s ensued here – the fire and damages and the risks that our first responders have taken and the risks our citizens are under – are the responsibility of that negligent business owner,” Snow said.
Investigators with the Environmental Protection Agency haven’t found any toxic compounds in the plume beyond hazardous particles normally found in fire smoke, according to Jason Sewell, the EPA’s onsite coordinator.
Still, those dangerous smoke particles have been found in the air in New Paris, Ohio, located about seven miles east of the fire. Crews will conduct roving air monitoring tests 24-7 and could install permanent testing equipment in the coming days, Sewell explained.
“That will be as important for us to continue monitoring as the fire is extinguished as it was at the peak of the fire,” he said.
But for Snyder, who’s staying at the emergency shelter with his parents, his main concern is getting out of the church gym, where he’s sleeping on a cot, and back into his own bed.
“I’m hoping they can get it controlled here sooner than later so we don’t have to stay here for very long and can head back home,” he said.