WBR plant damaged; cause of blaze unknown
PORT ALLEN — The cause of an Air Liquide Speciality Chemicals plant fire and explosion Monday that sent hundreds of cylinders into the air and forced scores of evacuations will not be known until after firefighters can secure the site, authorities said.
George Smalley, a spokesman for Air Liquide, said the fire occurred in the plant yard where cylinders containing acetylene were stored . He said the plant is not an acetylene production facility.
Instead, the acetylene is transported along U.S. 190 to the plant, where facility employees refill cylinders with the chemical, Smalley said.
An employee who was burned during the fire suffered minor injuries and was released from a hospital Monday afternoon, Smalley said.
State Police Emergency Services hazardous materials technicians, as well as several local fire departments, responded to the fire on U.S. 190 near Bueche Road in West Baton Rouge Parish, State Police spokesman Stephen Hammons said.
U.S. 190 between Port Allen and Erwinville will remain shut down in both directions until the site is secured, and people in a 1-mile radius and inside about 40 homes were evacuated all day, Hammons said.
Motorists should use Interstate 10, River Road and Rosedale Road as alternate routes and call 511 for more information about road closures, he said.
Firefighters were not able to get closer to the site to begin strategizing how they would attack the ongoing blaze until shortly after 5 p.m. Monday, said Robby Smith, chief of the Erwinville Volunteer Fire Department.
Due to the volatile nature of the compromised cylinders, crews were unable to approach the site to begin extinguishing the fire without a thorough assessment because the chemical that was burning was acetylene, which is used in welding and cutting torches, Hammons said.
State Police Air Support providedaerial surveillance so technicians could inspect the facility from the air, Hammons said.
Initial assessments indicated there were several hundred acetylene tanks on the facility grounds which were on fire and numerous other cylinders unaffected by fire were stored on the site, Hammons said.
After their initial assessment Monday evening, Smith said firefighters would wait until 6 a.m. Tuesday before they would go any deeper into the site to properly secure the cylinders.
“We’re dealing with a very, very unstable substance,” he said.
Southern Packing Inc. employee Tommy Landry said he saw first-hand how dangerous those cylinders are. Southern Packing is adjacent to Air Liquide.
Landry said when the blaze had just started he saw the cylinders shooting in the air like missiles, which prompted him and his fellow coworkers to flee their job site Monday morning.
“I thought something had hit the office we were in,” Landry said about hearing the first explosion. “All you could see was stuff burning; (gas) bottles flying everywhere.”
Landry said he thinks he heard about 30 different explosions.
Several ignited cylinders were launched from the plant yard and landed in the grassy median across the street, causing the fire to spread and create the thick wall of smoke that hovered over the highway until the grass fire was extinguished at 1:45 p.m. Monday.
State Police Capt. Doug Cain said Monday afternoon any health hazards related to the incident were being contained on site.
Rodney Mallett, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Quality, said officials did not expect any off-site release of acetylene because it was being consumed in the fire.
“The reason we had to close the road and evacuate everyone is because we didn’t want anyone to be harmed by any projectiles from the site,” Cain said. “Thankfully this is not a heavily populated area.”
The explosion occurred at 10:30 a.m., Cain said.
Landry and dozens of other Southern Packing employees went to the Cajun Circus Casino and Gas Station to shelter in place — about a half-mile from Air Liquide — where they remained most of the morning until West Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies transported them to one of the two daytime shelters.
Nancy Malone, spokesman for the American Red Cross, said about 100 people waited out the fire at the Port Allen Community Center and another 75 reported to the Erwinville Community Center until authorities gave them the OK to open an overnight shelter.
Nearby residents Regina and Theresa Early said they would rather take refuge at their grandmother’s house in Baton Rouge than go to a shelter.
The sisters were also camped out at the Cajun Circus gas station most of the morning because authorities would not let them return to their home on Winterville Road.
“I’m so aggravated,” said Regina Early, 19. “We’re just stuck.”
Late Monday, Air Liquide officials offered the evacuees vouchers for hotel stays, Malone said.
State Police, the Sheriff’s Office, DEQ, the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, the Erwinville and Port Allen fire departments and several emergency response teams are continuing to monitor the situation and the fire remains under investigation, Hammons said.