FORT WORTH, Texas – A series of explosions rocked a chemical plant in north Fort Worth on Thursday afternoon, unleashing a raging fire and an enormous pillar of black smoke that could be seen 25 miles away.

“It sounded like and looked like a tornado,” said Jeff Maxwell, who was eating lunch at a nearby restaurant.

At least five people were taken to hospitals with injuries that were not life-threatening. Officials did not order evacuations, but asked people who live or work within a five-mile radius to stay indoors until early evening to avoid the toxic smoke.

The first blast occurred about 1:30 p.m. and the fire was still burning into the night.

The cause of the explosion at Valley Solvents & Chemicals was not immediately known, but sent employees scrambling for cover.

“We barely made it out alive,” said one visibly shaken employee, who identified himself only as Josh. “Others, we don’t know how they are doing. Maybe they’re still inside. It was so loud. I was scared as hell, and I didn’t think I would make it. The whole building shook and the ground outside.”

Witnesses told firefighters that the initial explosion happened about 1:30 p.m. near where workers had been unloading methanol from an 18-wheeler.

Three people suffered burns, including the truck driver who had made the delivery. A plant employee injured his back while diving for cover under a tractor-trailer. And a woman who lives about eight blocks away was taken to a hospital after she began coughing up blood.

Jimmy Kearns, an unemployed mechanic who lives in a neighborhood close to the explosion, said his entire house shook.

“I was in my house watching TV and thought one of the neighbor’s homes had exploded,” Kearns said, adding that he got into his truck and drove closer just as another explosion erupted, uprooting what looked like a large tanker.

“It was a big piece of steel flying across the road,” said Kearns. “It was bigger than my truck.”

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The pillar of dense black smoke could be seen across the area. In downtown Fort Worth, curious onlookers took to the streets to watch the smoke move across the sky.

Many streets in the area were closed. Interstate 35-West was backed up for miles in both directions as motorists slowed to look at the bright orange blaze.

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More than 100 firefighters raced to the scene and worked for hours to contain the five-alarm blaze, which was exacerbated by toxic chemicals igniting and shooting orange fireballs into the sky.

It became clear quickly that the best course of action was to let the blaze burn itself out to protect firefighters, said Lt. Kent Worley, a fire department spokesman. The amount of water it would take to quench the fire would also create an environmental hazard because of the runoff from the site.

“If you were to put it out, I think you would create a bigger problem,” Worley said.

Some of the chemicals burning are toxic – methanol, sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, phosphoric acid, naphthalene and isopropyl alcohol – and were stored in vats holding up to 4,000 gallons.

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No one was evacuated in the largely industrial area, but 13 Fort Worth schools where staffs were preparing for the school year and a clinic were closed over concerns about smoke and air quality.

Officials said the clinic and schools should reopen Friday.

The Riverside Community Center and Meacham Airport terminal were being used as temporary shelters by the American Red Cross for those concerned for their safety. Among those who went to a shelter was Evalee Russell, 66.

Russell had just returned to her home on Mesquite Street, about eight blocks south of the explosion, when she stepped out of her car and felt her chest tighten. Within minutes, Russell, who suffers from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, began coughing uncontrollably and felt light-headed.

“I always cough,” she said. “But I started coughing up blood and that’s definitely not normal. It really scared me and I didn’t know what to do.”

Concerned that she may have inhaled chemicals from the nearby explosion, Russell was taken by ambulance to Baylor All-Saints Medical Center, where she was treated and released.

Two others were treated and released at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, while a third was sent to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, which specializes in the treatment of burns, said Lynsy Purl, a spokeswoman for Parkland.

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Valley Solvents & Chemicals has 16 trucks and employs 18 drivers, according to Department of Transportation records.

The last time federal workplace safety investigators noted any problems with the company was 12 years ago. Valley Solvents ultimately paid a $3,660 fine for 11 violations, mostly regarding safety documentation and one for leaving flammable liquids uncovered.

Light winds helped minimize the potentially hazardous conditions by dissipating the toxic smoke and carrying it upward, Worley said.

By 5 p.m., the fire was largely under control, and officials were monitoring and surveying its aftermath.

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The Environmental Protection Agency’s regional office in Dallas sent an on-scene coordinator to the plant to determine what chemicals were in the air, and at what concentrations, said Cindy Fanning, an EPA spokeswoman.

Foam trucks from Fort Worth Alliance and Dallas/Fort Worth airports and Naval Air Station that are usually used in aircraft crashes were brought in to shoot a layer of foam on the fire to keep it from flaring up.

City workers used sand to block off potentially dangerous runoff until it could be vacuumed up by a hazardous materials team.

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“It was a total loss,” Worley said. “There is nothing left in there.”



(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Alex Branch, Anna Tinsley, Aman Batheja, Bill Miller, Martha Deller, Mitch Mitchell, Amie Streater, Scott Streater, Jack Douglas and Jeff Claassen, news researcher Adam Barth and special correspondent Caren Penland contributed to this report.)



(c) 2005, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Visit the Star-Telegram on the World Wide Web at http://www.star-telegram.com.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TEXASFIRE

AP-NY-07-28-05 2237EDT


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