The smell of smoke still hung in the air Monday afternoon as Gary and Stephanie Turner returned to their room at Embassy Suites Hotel in Anaheim for the first time in nearly 21 hours.
The couple from Carrollton, Ga., who were in California on a five-day business-vacation trip, joked about being evacuated from the hotel Sunday night because a fire had broken out at a nearby auto salvage yard.
They stopped laughing when they learned that some of the mounds of shredded auto residue that burned in the fire at Orange County Steel Salvage Inc. contained a suspected carcinogen.
"Now that worries me," said Gary Turner, who told of seeing thick smoke billowing through the hotel lobby Sunday night. "It was so thick we thought it was the hotel on fire."
Others who live or work near the scrap yard, at 3200 E. Frontera St., also expressed concern about the mound, which is laced with toxic levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
"I don't think it should be allowed to be there," said Esther Church, manager of a small apartment complex for the disabled that was evacuated for about five hours Sunday night because of the fire and fear of the possible spread of toxic fumes. "I would like to see it gone."
Church, like some other neighbors, said she didn't even know the auto shredding firm or its mounds existed until the fire.
From Frontera Street, the salvage yard is hidden by its business offices and a fence lined with trees. Two other sides are also fenced with trees. The back is open and unfenced, with mounds of the shredded remains of cars dotting the yard to the bank of the Santa Ana River.
When the scrap yard opened 12 years ago, there were few structures close by.
131-Unit Building Nearby
That changed 10 years ago, when the 131-unit Five Coves Apartments opened just down Frontera, alongside the Riverside Freeway. Fifteen months ago, the 40-unit Carbon Creek Shores Apartments, which Church manages, opened next to that complex. Two months ago, the seven-story Embassy Suites, a luxury hotel, opened next door to the salvage yard. And a pasta restaurant is being built a few hundred feet away from the hotel.
On Monday, workers at the hotel and its restaurant, Gregory's, said the biggest problem posed by the salvage yard before Sunday's fire was the view it provided.
"Guests sometimes jokingly ask us why they built a hotel next door to the place," said Ron Castro, a manager at Gregory's.
But John Tilton, manager of the Five Coves Apartments, said the scrap yard used to emit foul odors every now and then. "I used to smell it before they built the hotel," he said. "I think the hotel keeps it from coming down here."
Rosemary Prater, who works for the firm that manages the apartment complex, said Sunday's fire has made her fear for the safety of Tilton, of his wife and co-manager, Lisa, and for the other residents of Five Coves.
"If I had known there were toxics down there, I would have raised hell," she said.