Bradley County Emergency Services Director Shawn Fairbanks gave an account of what happened last week during and after the explosion at the Wacker Polysilicon North America plant near …
Bradley County Emergency Services Director Shawn Fairbanks gave an account of what happened last week during and after the explosion at the Wacker Polysilicon North America plant near Charleston.
Fairbanks gave his presentation to the Bradley County Commission on Monday as the result of an invitation by County Commissioner Bill Winters, who was at Walker Valley High School when the incident occurred.
Fairbanks said he saw the explosion on video and “it was massive.”
“It is very fortunate they did not have more injuries than what they did,” he said.
Fairbanks said one of the reasons for his presentation was because “social media has killed this very unfairly.”
“It caused a lot of problems for us and I think that it’s still not stopping completely,” he said.
Fairbanks talked of pictures that have been posted of a green dye in creeks.
“That dye is not from Wacker,” Fairbanks said. “That is from Cleveland Utilities checking to make sure nothing is getting into their sewer systems. They are continuing that through Monday. It’s a pretty green, just don’t worry about it. It’s not toxic.”
The other reports concerned the number of people sent to hospitals.
“And, the amount that are dead. No one is dead,” Fairbanks said. “There was one burn patient, one that has chest pains, and a Wacker firefighter who had heat exhaustion. Those are the ones transported from the scene.”
He said there were people going to the hospital on their own “for irritants to the eyes and throat and things like that.”
“The actual chemical that was released stayed on site and did not get out,” Fairbanks said. “We and all of the other departments that were there were very vigilant in making sure everything stayed on site.”
He said the remedy for what happened was to dilute it with water.
“Once you dilute that with water, then it ‘hydrolizes’ into hydrochloric acid,” Fairbanks said.
“Everybody says, ‘Well, they’re saying it was just steam.’ Some of it was steam,” he added. “The worst reading we got was over by Olin on Old Lower River Road at a 1.9. I asked the guys who do the air quality monitoring what that meant, and they said, ‘You’re still good, that’s just the highest reading we have.”
At that point, Fairbanks ordered the roads to remain closed “until it gets closer to 0.”
“The worst reading after that came in on-site was 0.66,” he said. “[Wacker] did very well in containing that in-house.”
Fairbanks explained the reason for the confusion that came after the roads were closed a second time.
“Wacker said it was well-contained and we didn’t need to be closing the roads,” he said. “We felt comfortable in opening up the roads. But, Wacker’s turbo truck, which has jet engines on it that shoots massive, massive amount of water, failed.”
“Once that failed, it let another release go and it looked real bad, covering the whole area with a plume again,” Fairbanks said. “They had three problems with that truck that night. ... We brought in Cleveland, Tri-Com, a ladder from Charleston and several of our county units and flooded that area with our water,” he said. “That way if the Turbo Truck went down, we had plenty of water on it.”
Fairbanks said that is why it was almost 10 p.m. before the roads were opened a final time “because we wanted to make sure nothing was going outside of that gate.”
He said the uniforms that were worn by first responders now are contaminated with the hydrochloric acid.
“We are washing them and Wacker gave us what we need to test them,” he said. “If it comes out, we’re good. If not, Wacker will replace it.”
He said the only other problem reported by the local responders was some peeling paint from a Cleveland unit.
“We had very good [backup] from all departments,” Fairbanks said. “I probably had more people in Bradley County working fire response duties during that event than we do on a normal day-to-day basis. We had so much backup, I thought we were going to have to feed them.”
Fairbanks cited Hamilton County, McMinn County, Hamilton County Rescue Squad with 14 hazardous materials technicians, and Polk County with air trailers.
“There is a rumor we were not allowed inside the gate. That is false,” Fairbanks said. “I pulled toward that gate, it came up fast, and I never slowed down.”
He did say there were some Bradley County Sheriff’s Office units that were there, but were turned away “because there was no need at that time for them to go through that gate and put themselves in harm, and were needed more to work the roads.”
Fairbanks said if someone approached the gate and needed access, he would get the call, notify the Wacker fire chief, and access was promptly given.
“There were no issues of anybody getting into Wacker,” Fairbanks said.
Fairbanks also said the local businesses also stepped up to the plate when needed.
“They did not hesitate with stuff I needed,” he said. “I called Collins Oil and they kept their phones on. I didn’t have to call them because Wright Brothers sits next door to Wacker and they gave us a key and showed us how to use their fuel tanks and anything we needed. I thank the community for making sure we had the resources we needed.”
Winters said he thought he had the highest respect for first responders.
“I have even more after this event,” he said, recalling where he was when the incident occurred.
“I was at Walker Valley preparing for the soccer match to begin, “ Winters said. “I thought something had hit the back of my car. I turned around and nothing was there.
“As I got to the field, there was this plume coming and a chemistry teacher that was there called off that game,” he said, “She said, ‘I think we probably ought to get off of this field.’ Then she said it in a teacher way that made everybody stop.”
Winters said as they pulled out from the scene, that was when they saw the first responders arriving.
“I appreciate that,” he said. “We were kind of in a panic mode. It was great comfort to me knowing you all were there — Shawn and [EMA Director] Troy Spence. I do know personally it affected my children and grandchildren.”
“Especially on Sept. 11, we need as a community to appreciate them even more,” Winters said.
Vice Chairman Jeff Yarber noted that Wacker “was not the only company which has potential chemical hazards.”
“I do think everyone who might have to respond to this type of thing should be equipped with hazmat suits for those types of situations,” Yarber said.
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