Fire broke out at a metal-processing plant Tuesday, sending a plume of chemical-laced smoke into the air and prompting the precautionary evacuation of 16,000 people in four communities.
Environmental officials spent much of Tuesday trying to track and test the smoke to find out what chemicals were released from the Spencer Metal Processing Co. in Nanticoke, in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Preliminary tests showed there was little threat to public health, state environmental and health officials said. However, the officials warned people against returning to their homes until air analyses were completed.
The all-clear was given about 14 hours after the incident began, and, within an hour, the area had sprung back to life as returning residents unloaded the belongings they had hastily gathered in their flight.
The fire broke out at 12:30 a.m. on the rafters of the three-story factory, Nick Gushka, a state fire marshal, said. The cause of the fire has not been determined, he said.
"A ring formed around the entire city," Nanticoke Fire Commissioner Mark Yeager said. "The smoke was very heavy and very irritating."
Health Secretary Mark Richards said the smoke dissipated by late afternoon.
Arthur Davis, secretary of the state Environmental Resources Department, Gov. Robert P. Casey and Richards visited Nanticoke after the overnight fire caused local officials to order the evacuations of Nanticoke, West Nanticoke, Sheatown and Alden.
The 15 workers in the plant, which was destroyed, escaped uninjured, Yeager said. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries.
"We all thought it was the Susquehanna plant," Nanticoke resident Theresa Pappas said, referring to a nearby nuclear plant. "I got deathly afraid. I didn't know what to take but myself, my clothes and seven bucks in my pocket."
The metal-processing plant, which is in a residential area, used 10 chemicals, including sulfuric acid, phosphoric acid, nitric acid and ammonia, Yeager said. Open vats of chemicals and at least six 55-gallon drums of sulfuric acid were at the site.
Davis said sulfuric acid had been released. "Some of the drums in the plant had been breached," he said.
Eye, Nose Irritation
Richards said the effect on healthy people probably would be limited to eye and nose irritation. But people with lung diseases, such as emphysema, could be at greater risk, he said.
Mayor John Haydock said he and other officials were trying to be especially cautious because about 60% of the residents are over 65.
Gov. Casey declared a state of emergency at 7 a.m., road blocks were set up, and about 25 members of the National Guard and 39 state police officers patrolled the town for security, Haydock said.
Hospitals in nearby Wilkes-Barre took patients from Nanticoke hospitals and nursing homes.
"It's terrible, all them poisons on this earth," said Ernest Locke, a 78-year-old Nanticoke native. "Every time there's an accident, there's poison. It's getting worse all the time."
He and his wife, Rose, and neighbor Louis Klinitski left their homes at about 2:30 a.m., taking the Lockes' two cats with them.
"We didn't know how long we'd be away, and we didn't want to lose them," Locke said.