500 Evacuated as Fire Spews Chemical Fumes From Newport Plant

Times Staff Writer

A fire that gutted a Newport Beach metal finishing firm Sunday forced the evacuation of about 500 residents when it released a cloud of potentially toxic fumes, including a small amount of cyanide.

About 350 people from an apartment complex behind the burning business and 100 to 150 people from a large mobile home park were evacuated as a precaution while hazardous materials experts tried to determine what chemical mixtures were left by the fire, police and fire officials said.

Only 100 residents had been allowed to return to their homes by late Sunday and the rest were expected to have to find other shelter if they had not already done so.


The fire was reported at 9:44 a.m. and had fully engulfed Hixson Metal Finishing, 829 Production Place, when firefighters arrived, Newport Beach Fire Capt. Axel Zanelli said.

Tests conducted by hazardous materials teams a few hours after the fire had been controlled revealed that cyanide had been released in the smoke and that acid levels were still high within the building, Zanelli said. However, Dr. Philip A. Edelman, a hazardous materials expert called in to help determine the amount of contamination, said there did not appear to be any serious health threat. The worst effects, he said, will probably be eye and throat irritation.

No injuries were reported, and the cause of the fire is not known. Although the fire was controlled in two hours, it continued to smoulder all day. Firefighters had extinguished all hot spots by 6 p.m.

Zanelli said the evacuation was a precautionary measure because of the variety of heavy metals and acidic chemicals, including lead salts and fluoride, in the building. Police officers evacuated an apartment complex south of the firm and homes to the west, the prevailing wind direction, as well as a church and its school on Monrovia Avenue.

When the wind shifted from west to east about 4:30, residents in two mobile home parks downwind were evacuated.

‘Extremely Cautious’

“We go overboard; well, I should say we’re extremely cautious with hazardous material incidents because we don’t know what we have at first,” Zanelli said.

Firefighters from four cities and the county fought the blaze. Afterward, all firefighters and police officers who came into contact with the smoke or water went through decontamination procedures. Their clothes and fire hoses were wrapped up and probably will be destroyed, Zanelli said, and the firefighters washed down in plastic pools set up on Production Place.

One police officer who said he experienced some dizziness after walking through the smoke was taken to Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian. He was given a blood test to check for toxic chemicals in his blood and later released in good condition, Zanelli said.

While Newport Beach Public Works employees set up sand berms on Placentia Avenue to contain the water from fire hoses, a hazardous materials squad from Huntington Beach Fire Department and Edelman went into the firm to try and establish what chemicals had been released.

Because of the damage in the building, an accurate assessment was not immediately available, Zanelli said. “The roof caved in and we have a lot of ruptured containers in there. They’re just sitting on edge,” he said.

Inventory of Chemicals

Although the Fire Department maintains inventories of the chemicals that businesses in the city use, exactly what substance the firefighters were left with was not immediately clear: The collapsed roof broke open containers, and the flames and water further mixed chemicals.

The delicate cleanup job meant a prolonged evacuation for the residents of the area. American Red Cross officials set up a shelter and canteen at Whittier Elementary School in Costa Mesa. Red Cross officials said about 30 people were using the facility Sunday night.

Zanelli said the amount of chemicals in the destroyed building will mean other businesses on Production Place probably will have to remain closed today. He said it will probably take several days to clean out all the chemicals and another week to conduct full tests in the area.

By 6 p.m. Sunday, workers for IT Corp., which is handling the removal process, were continuing to vacuum the water contained by the sand berms, and firefighters had completely knocked down the last of the smouldering embers.

Zanelli said some water had flowed into city sewers before the sand berms were erected.

Newport Beach Police Lt. Jim Carson said the U.S. Coast Guard was calling in a federal team from San Francisco to deal with contaminated water that washed about a mile into Newport Bay via storm drains. Tests of bay water “indicate that acids did reach the bay,” Carson said.

“I was told by our HAZMAT (specialist) that they had found that the acidity level, the ph level, of the bay had risen,” Carson said, adding that it was not immediately clear what that meant.

“I don’t know how serious it is, but we’ve had no reports of wildlife or fish death.”

The fire triggered the release of a small amount of hydrofluoric acid, used in metal refinishing and plating at the 10,000 square-foot plant, police said, and about 140 other chemicals, including sodium cyanide, were found when firefighters entered the building after quenching the flames.

Zanelli noted that the city’s firefighting and cleanup costs will be carefully calculated because the firm may have to pay the bill if there is any evidence of negligence.

Nobody was in the building Sunday morning, he said, and the last workers that had been in the building reportedly left at 6 p.m. Saturday.

Fire officials at the scene said they did not believe there had been any previous problems with the industry.

Company owner Robert Hixson said he has obtained permits for all the substances housed at his company and, in fact, had spent $40,000 in recent months to remove some hazardous materials and upgrade safety equipment.

Hixson said there has not been a fire or incident at the firm in the 27 years it has been located on Production Place. “We’re very conscientious,” said Hixson, who said he has lived in Newport Beach for 40 years. “In fact, we spent $40,000 this year making sure nothing bad would happen. That’s what’s dissapointing. There’re a lot of companies that give our industry a bad name, but we are very, very clean.”

Hixson, who said his business employs 125 workers, owns a number of other buildings on Production Place. He added: “I love Newport Beach, I love my neighbors and I’ve never had anything like this happen. I’m very distraught.”

Yvonne Deahr, who has lived in the apartment complex south of the firm for about seven months, said she noticed smoke coming from vents on the building’s roof Sunday morning. At first, she thought someone might have been working inside, but soon flames and black smoke were pouring out and she watched the vents melt after she called the Fire Department.

Building Evacuated

“It was like I was standing this far from a fireplace,” she said, gesturing an arm’s length away.

Police soon evacuated the apartment complex. Most of those evacuated said they had no idea toxic chemicals were stored close by.

and Deahr watched the fire from the street with other Leo Goodin, who has lived in the apartment complex next to the firm for 11 years, said he had no worries about a toxic threat. He said the evacuation was merely a “little inconvenience” and nothing compared to the loss of jobs for Hixson employees.