Scott Gordon, NBC 5 News
The EPA says air tests after a massive fire a a Waxahachie chemical plant showed no immediate threat to the public.
Firefighters are letting a massive fire that broke out Monday morning at a chemical plant in Waxahachie burn itself out.
The fire broke out at the Magnablend chemical plant near State Highway 287 and Interstate 35E at 10:35 a.m.
Scott Pendery, company president and owner, said he had no idea how the blaze began. He said he is launching an investigation as well as cooperating with others.
"While we're thankful there were no serious injuries or loss of life, we do recognize many people were inconvenienced by today's evacuations and other emergency activities, and we sincerely regret this was necessary," he said.
Environmental Protection Agency officials arrived mid-afternoon and began running tests on the quality of the air and water (because of runoff from fighting the chemical fire). EPA Coordinator Nicolas Brescia said late Monday afternoon that initial air quality tests show "nothing significant" and said there is no immediate threat to the public.
"We have not seen any significant levels that would cause a public health concern, and that is offsite," he said.
Some higher levels were detected near the fire itself, but government experts described that as normal in such as massive fire.
Brescia said the EPA's ASPECT aircraft, essentially a flying lab, performed four high-altitude runs and detected flammable and a hydrocarbon compounds at extremely low levels.
"Both of those chemicals that they detected were at extremely low levels," he said.
But Brescia cautioned that ground-based air tests would continue and could yield different results.
The fire prompted evacuations of nearby schools and residences as explosions pushed flames and incredibly dark plumes of thick smoke high into the air. People were allowed to return to their homes later Monday night.
The smoke, which was once so thick it cast a heavy shadow over northwest Waxahachie, began to thin out and dissipate as the fire died down in the mid-afternoon.
Lisa Wheeler, of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said the plant deals with ammonia, sulfuric, hydrochloric, nitric and phosphoric acids and mixes them for fertilizer and agricultural products.
Winds pushed the plumes of smoke and particulates from the south to the north between 6 and 10 mph. See a map here from the National Weather Service on the plume track.
The TCEQ issued an air pollution watch level orange for Tuesday.
Battling the Fire
After battling the intense blaze for nearly four hours, firefighters estimated the fire was 80 percent contained at about 2:30 p.m. Firefighters decided to let the rest of the fire burn itself out. By 5 p.m., thin wisps of gray smoke was all that remained as the final small pockets of chemicals burned the last of their fuel.
Waxahachie Fire Chief David Hudgins said crews that arrived shortly after the first alarm saw thick smoke and flames coming from the facility. Hudgins said they quickly realized the fire was too intense to battle from the inside, so they tried to drench the flames using unmanned water cannons placed inside the building.
When the water cannons didn't work, firefighters tried to tap into the sprinkler system to force more water through the pipes and out of the sprinkler heads. Hudgins said the sprinkler system was either damaged in the initial explosion or didn't have enough pressure.
"As you know a sprinkler system is designed for x-number of heads to go off," he said. "If more heads than that go off, you don't have adequate water coming out. That's where the fire department comes in. That's the first thing we did was go to the sprinkler system to pump into it, and it was not helping any."
Hudgins said tanks at the facility then ruptured, pouring a fast-moving flaming liquid on to the ground. Firefighters were forced to quickly pull back and reassess how they were going to attack the fire. During the retreat, a fire engine from Ennis was engulfed by the fire and destroyed as the flames spread quickly across the ground.
Megablend spokesman Donald Golden said there were some chemicals in the building that, when burned, could be hazardous.
"I can only speculate on what's going on inside that building right now," Golden said of the 100,000-square-foot warehouse, as explosions continued to send balls of fire high into the air.
Meanwhile, the fire spread underneath a train stopped outside the facility. The train was loaded with tanker cars, one of which was believed to contain a highly flammable material called naptha. Firefighters moved to protect and soak the train, keeping it from catching fire and exploding -- and possibly spreading the fire further east into nearby neighborhoods.
At about 12:30 p.m. firefighters began to pull back even further from the scene because of the increased volatility of the fire. The fire briefly moved beyond the property and into an adjacent field toward the college, but was stalled on the south side by firefighters protecting the campus.
The Waxahachie Fire Department was assisted by several area departments in battling the fire, including the Dallas HAZMAT team.
Ennis Fire Truck Destroyed in Fire
A fire tanker truck that was used to help fight the blaze was engulfed in flames and lost in the fire.
“It was hard watching your truck burn,” Ennis Fire Capt. Jeff Aycock said.
Ennis firefighters were among the first on the scene after Waxahachie firefighters called help.
Aycock said the fast-moving fire made a sharp turn toward them when the ladder on his engine was about 50 feet up in the air. Two firefighters were in the aerial bucket.
He said his first priority was lowering the ladder and getting his firefighters on the ground.
“We knew we had to hurry, but knew we were a little ahead of the game -- not by much -- but knew we had time," Aycock said.
While they had time to get the ladder down, time to move the truck ran out.
“The hardest part was figuring out how to title my dear chief letter, and I knew that was coming,” Aycock joked.
The vicious fire devoured the $1.2 million ladder truck, torching a piece of Ennis history.
“It's been here 25 years and served us well,” Aycock said. “It’s sad to see it go, but good news is, everyone is safe and everyone gets to go home.”
The Ennis Fire Department said it is already in the process of ordering a new ladder truck. In the meantime, the city will be leaning on neighbors such as Waxahachie in the event of an emergency.
Fire Prompts Evacuations of Schools, Residences
Wedgeworth Elementary School, which is located only a couple of blocks to the southeast of the chemical facility, was evacuated at about noon.
About 650 students were bused to the Waxahachie Ninth Grade Academy. School will be back in session, with a normal start time, Tuesday morning.
The Ellis County campus of Navarro College, which is located immediately to the south of the chemical facility, was evacuated shortly after the fire broke out. All classes for Monday were canceled. At 5:30 p.m., the school has not yet said if classes will resume Tuesday.
Residents of a nearby apartment complex, the Solon Place apartments, were also advised to evacuate. Residents were allowed back into their apartments and homes just before 5 p.m.
No residences were threatened by the fire. The facility is bound by McNaughton Street and 287 to the north (though the fire did briefly cross 287), the railroad tracks to the east, the school and a field to the south along John Arden Drive and a parking lot and field to the west.
In DeSoto, all campuses were closed after the smoke plume pushed north into Dallas County. Students in the DeSoto district were at the State Fair of Texas on Monday and not in school.
Golden said the nearly three dozen employees who were in the facility at the time were safe and accounted for.
Two employees had minor injuries but were not hospitalized. No injuries to firefighters or those near the fire at the time were reported.
More About Magnablend
The company has three facilities in Waxahachie.
The fire was at the Central Facility at 1601 State Highway 287 Bypass, just east of Interstate 35E, which opened in 2007. Eighty employees work at the facility.
The TCEQ said the company has a good history of being in compliance with no enforcement history.
Magnablend Inc. manufactures, blends and packages custom chemicals. Much of its business revolves around energy production, including chemicals used to stimulate oil and gas wells and hydraulic fracturing.
The company was launched in Waxahachie in 1979 and now employs about 250 people, with operations in Pennsylvania, Wyoming and North Dakota, as well as Texas.
NBC 5's Ken Kalthoff, Scott Gordon, Omar Villafranca, Kristi Nelson, Susy Solis and Ellen Goldberg contributed to this report.