ROMULUS, Mich. - A series of explosions and fires at a Detroit-area chemical plant sent plumes of black smoke high into the sky, hundreds of residents out of their homes and a dozen people to the hospital for treatment.
No one was inside the Romulus plant when the fire started shortly after 9 p.m. EDT Tuesday, authorities said. By 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, about a dozen residents had been to Oakwood Healthcare System's hospital in neighboring Wayne, where most complained of a burning sensation in their mouths or difficulty breathing, hospital spokesman Tom Worobec said.
They were all expected to be treated and discharged before morning, he said.
Witnesses described a series of loud explosions at the E.Q. Resource Recovery Inc. plant that shook the ground and shot flames and smoke into the air. The company specializes in treating, recycling and disposing of hazardous material.
Romulus Mayor Alan R. Lambert said one tank exploded then set off explosions in others at the plant. He said air quality was one of the primary concerns and that the intensity of the fire and uncertainty about the chemicals kept firefighting crews from initially getting too close to the flames.
"What the plant does is takes hazardous materials and neutralize it so they're not hazardous anymore," Lambert said.
Dan Gilbert, a plant spokesman, told WXYZ-TV that plant employees were working outside in an area around the tanks just before the explosion and were evacuated after an emergency horn sounded. All of them were accounted for and none of them requested medical treatment, he said.
Firefighters were not able to determine a cause or what was burning because they were not able to get close enough due to the multiple explosions, said John Zech, Wayne's city manager.
Romulus Public Safety Director Chief Charles Kirby said that firefighters did not attack the fire because there were no lives in danger and no risk of the fire spreading.
"We've got a fire that's contained, and the fire chief thinks the best thing to do is let it burn," he said early Wednesday. "There's not a hazard to anyone else as far as life or property."
Kirby said that strong winds blowing chemical smoke prevented firefighters from attacking the plant from the front, while railroad tracks and the ground's elevation stopped them from accessing it from the back.
The fire caused eight metal tanks containing acetone, a chemical used to clean machinery, to melt to half their original size. Fire officials expected that the chemical would burn out within eight hours, Kirby said in the early morning hours.
He urged residents within a half-mile radius to evacuate and said it would be a good idea for people within a mile radius to do so as well.
Hazardous materials officials had tested the air quality and found no danger present, Kirby said. But workers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were on their way to conduct more tests.
Wayne Mayor Al Haidous declared a state of emergency at about 10:10 p.m. He said winds were blowing the fumes and smoke from the plant northeast into his city.
The area included in the evacuation included about 1,000 homes in Wayne and another 150 in Romulus, but it was unclear how many people chose to leave, officials said.
Shelters were set up at high schools and community centers, and the Red Cross and Salvation Army provided assistance. Some of those evacuated were treated to pizza and movies.
Romulus is located about 25 miles southwest of Detroit and is home to Detroit Metropolitan Airport.