Chemical Fire at Beaufort Plant - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

03/10/03

Chemical Fire at Beaufort Plant

Thick smoke and intense heat faced firefighters. Thick smoke and intense heat faced firefighters.
They got the fire under control, but many suffered minor injuries. They got the fire under control, but many suffered minor injuries.
Toxins caused a skin rash. Toxins caused a skin rash.

A huge fire broke out early this morning at a marble plant in Beaufort, South Carolina. At this point, firefighters don't know what actually caused the fire, but they say it's one of the most intense they've ever had to fight.

"When we first arrived, we had a lot of flames showing from the eaves of the building, and it was actually coming through a lot of the tin," said firefighter Chris Moyer.

Firefighters from three departments had been working to put out the blaze at Athena Marble since 3am this morning. Because the plant uses a number of flammable chemicals to make its cultured marble products, the fire took off right from the beginning.

Chief Harry Rountree said, "It was pretty intense, it had gotten a pretty good foothold by the time we got into the building, it had spread from the production area into the storage area."

The harsh chemicals inside the plant sent 14 firefighters for minor burns and skin irritation.

"We had flames on both side of our head, and every time we tried to push forward, the flames pushed us back, the heat was pushing us back, so it was real tough to make an entry," Moyer said.

The building has been turned over to the South Carolina Department of Health Environmental Control, and firefighters say they won't be able to begin investigation for at least another 24 hours, until they know that it is safe to go back in.

Another problem related to the fire is that the marble company sits on the marshes and creeks near the Broad River. Because of the toxins involved in the fire, the Department of Health Environmental Control is checking to see if any of them got into the waterways which drain into the river. If so, they may close the river to any shellfishing, and they should release those findings by tomorrow.

The Broad River isn't the only thing experiencing contamination, however. Haz mat teams quarantined some of the firefighters and our own Jaime Dailey. Soon after exposure, the men and women at the scene of the fire developed red rashes on their skins. They set up an area outside Beaufort Memorial Hospital, where those exposed were stripped naked and hosed down before being taken inside.

"They complained of a lot of localized skin reaction, some hives," said the hospital's Mary Benton. "A couple of them had some shortness of breath, sore throat."

"What we're dealing with now is essentially a hazardous materials incident," said Chief Rountree. "We're dealing with a variation hydrocarbons used in the process to make what they make. Every bit of bunker gear that they were wearing is considered contaminated."

At the hospital, they activated an emergency plan known as "code green" for hazardous materials outdoor chemical decontamination. Counting the firefighters and staff, more than 40 people had to be decontaminated and 14 were treated for injuries.

"They had inhalation injuries, they had skin reactions, they had allergic reactions to chemicals involving their eyes and throats and larynxes," said Dr. Saeed Rehman.

Dr. Rehman said it had the potential to be serious, but fortunately none of the firefighters were seriously injured. Nevertheless, the hospital has a plan in place to deal with the need. Jaime Dailey is fine as well after receiving treatment at the hospital for about 2 1/2 hours.

Reported by: Jaime Dailey, jdailey@wtoc.com and Ryan Young, ryoung@wtoc.com

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