State fire marshal at scene of fire

Georgia state fire marshal Jerry Parrish arrives at the Buy The Truck industry on Monday, Feb. 29, to investigate the origin of the commercial fire from Friday, Feb. 26. (Messenger photo/Josh O’Bryant)

Firefighters were able on Saturday to completely extinguish the fire that erupted late Friday morning at Buy the Truck factory in LaFayette.

Two factory workers who were critically injured were recovering Monday. About a dozen employees were treated for smoke inhalation at the scene, while others were transported to an area hospital.

Black smoke from the fire prompted concerns over air quality, as well as concerns over water runoff from fire hoses into a nearby creek.

Residents within a one-mile radius were encouraged to remain indoors as a precaution.

Buy The Truck, located at 1115 South Chattanooga Street, makes foam mats and distributes hardwood or hardwood composite.

On Sunday, city manager David Hamilton said he was told by the business owner that employees returned to work Saturday morning for cleanup efforts, including some workers who had been treated for smoke inhalation.

Hamilton said Buy The Truck deals with hardwood flooring and operates as a distribution center for hardwood flooring, storage of polyurethane foam in bundles as well as polyurethane blocks that are sliced into thin blocks to produce pads for cow mats for dairy farms.

Buy The Truck has 25-30 employees, Hamilton said.

Tim Toole, owner of Buy The Truck and Quality Carpet Cushion, has been working with the city and the state Environmental Protection Division. Toole bears all responsibility due to the fire at his property, Hamilton said. “He has been great,” Hamilton said about Toole’s cooperation with authorities.

Quality Carpet Cushion was destroyed a fire in March 2008.

Toole was out of town when the fire started Friday morning but was contacted, returned to town and was onsite within three hours.

“He has been very cooperative,” Hamilton said. “… He has been very good to deal with the city so far.”

Toole was present Saturday with his employees, trying to evaluate the damage and also to begin the process of cleaning up what remains.

“I know that he intends to repair it,” Hamilton said.

Toole informed Hamilton that all employees were fine on Saturday and returned to work that morning, including the two employees who were reported in critical condition.

Hamilton said he is waiting on information from the EPD, once the director signs off on the lab result samplings from the site that were taken on Friday.

Hamilton said residents who were cautioned to stay indoors as a safety measure due to the smoke should know that it is safe to be outdoors again.

The creek that runs by the site was sampled by the EPD for the pH levels, which returned within range, Hamilton said. That is the only information made available by the EPD at this time.

Hamilton said the city was more prepared for this fire, as opposed to the Barwick Mills fire in November and that is mainly due to the fire occurring during work hours on a Friday, compared to the Barwick fire that occurred during the weekend with no city workers on shift.

“On Friday, it happened during a work day, so our employees were all on shift and were very available. We had on-call employees in the case of the Barwick fire that had a little travel time, between 30 and 45 minutes,” Hamilton said.

“With this (Buy the Truck) fire, we did not have the same structure as we did with the Barwick fire,” Hamilton said. “The Barwick fire was a much older building — a lot of wood, basically a lot of flammable materials. So, it was a much tougher fire to control because of the structure. This fire is a metal building — metal roofing, metal siding, metal framing. Barwick had some metal framing too, but the structure was a lot more difficult.”

Hamilton said the other challenge with the Barwick fire, compared to the Buy The Truck fire, is that the railroad tracks at the Barwick site made it difficult to get fire apparatus to the west side of the building.

“A lot of the difference was the location of the building, the building materials of the building. And the sprinkler system in the building (Buy The Truck) did a lot more to control the fire or help keep it from spreading than it did in the case of the Barwick fire,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said the city purchased a drone four to six weeks prior to the fire as a means of marketing and promoting the city and to use in cases of emergency, missing persons, and so on.

The city’s costs for the drone totaled $2,600, which included the long-range remote, batteries, casing, and additional accessories. The drone does not have thermal camera capabilities at this time. All footage will be available to the public.

“It was a useful tool to the fire chief as well as the incident command,” Hamilton said.

A wall was removed to get to flammable materials inside the facility. The materials were removed to make sure the flames would not jump to the other surrounding materials that could catch on fire, Hamilton said. This gave firefighters better access to the fire and spread out the materials.

“The nature of this type of materials, really any kind of plastics fire, is it smolders,” Hamilton said. “And when you extinguish the top — picture a big pile of plastic that is smoldering underneath — when you put water on top of it, it forms a hard shell. The water cools the molten plastic and it forms a hard shell over the top, which protects, for the lack of a better term, protects the material underneath from the water. So if you still have smoldering material underneath you have now essentially formed an umbrella on the top of it and the water can’t get in and extinguish the actual source as to the spot that is still on fire.”

If the source is left alone under the shell, it can reignite and that is what happened Friday.

Material was removed from inside to the field around the factory. As responders continued to pull the material into the field, the previously removed material caught on fire after the wind hit it and sent another plume of smoke into the air around 3 p.m.

The piles of materials were torn apart and soaked with water to fully extinguish the fire.

When it reignited, it was away from any other combustible material, Hamilton said.

The materials would still reignite throughout the night, but were extinguished each time under a fire watch until it was cleared Saturday around 2 p.m.

The LaFayette Fire Department monitors the site every four hours.

Hamilton said he has not been contacted by anyone experiencing illness due to the fire.

“I have heard second- or third-hand that that concern is out there,” Hamilton said. “We haven’t been approached directly and it could be that they reached out to EPD or EPA.”

The federal Environmental Protection Agency was contacted Friday of the incident, but the protocol is that the state EPD comes to the site first and makes the determination of whether to escalate to bring in the EPA, Hamilton said.

“Based on EPD’s assessment, they made the decision not to call EPA on site,” Hamilton said. “So, EPA is aware. EPD has shared the information it has with EPA and they didn’t deem it necessary to call EPA teams on site.”

Hamilton said the city awaits the EPD results, and the EPD will be working directly with the property owner.

Hamilton said the city wants to see what, if any, damaged inventory needs to be removed from the site and also be available to help the property owner with any problems on the site.

“It is our goal for him to repair that building and stay where he is and get his employees back to work and get him rolling again. That is our hope and goal. If there is a way to do that, that is ideal for the community,” Hamilton said.

City issues press release

Here is the city of LaFayette’s press release, sent out Friday evening, concerning the fire, including EPD involvement:

“Emergency responders were called to a two-alarm fire (Friday, Feb. 26) at the Buy The Truck factory in LaFayette. First-alarm responders were dispatched at 10:18 a.m. from LaFayette, Walker County, and the Walker Correctional Facility, followed quickly by a second alarm team of responders from Rossville, Catoosa County and Fort Oglethorpe. Additional responders arrived from Trion and Summerville and served as backup for the rest of the city.

“Twelve individuals were treated for smoke inhalation. Four were treated on the scene but refused additional treatment and eight were transported to the hospital. Two are critically injured.

“A team from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources was also dispatched to the scene. The volume of water from the building’s sprinkler system and firefighting efforts caused runoff to leave the property and flow into state waters, and Hugh Galyean, state on-scene coordinator for Georgia Environmental Protection Division emergency response, arrived to coordinate efforts in filtering the water and prevent contaminants from entering state waters.

“Since individuals were transported to the hospital, the state fire marshal has been called and will arrive shortly. No suspicious activity is known at this time.

“Due to the size and complexity of the fire, the LaFayette Fire Department used an aerial drone to assess areas that were inaccessible without extreme danger to firefighters. This technology expedited the deployment of the most effective tactics to contain the fire, minimizing exposure and injury to those fighting the blaze.”

“The hard work and efforts of all the emergency responders which included teams from the city of LaFayette’s public works and utilities department is most appreciated and our thoughts and prayers are with those injured as well as their families.”

Second plant fire in months

This is the second commercial fire in LaFayette in three months.

Fire led to electrical explosions at the old Barwick Mills in LaFayette on Saturday afternoon, Nov. 14, sending the historic mill into flames, where officials say latex was being stored. The mill ceased operations in the early ‘90s.

The Barwick Mills fire lead to months of speculation regarding what was inside the facility when it burned and if there was a presence of asbestos as federal agents from the Environmental Protection Agency conducted tests on the site.

According to Carter Williamson, federal on-scene coordinator for the emergency response and removal branch of the EPA office in Atlanta, results from the asbestos tests returned negative.

Numerous agencies, including LaFayette Fire Department, LaFayette Police Department, Walker County Emergency Services, Georgia Department of Corrections Fire and Rescue, as well as neighboring agencies responded to the blaze.

The fire has since been contained and was determined to be accidental in nature, but the cause of the fire has not been confirmed at this time.

Officials are working to determine how to protect the local environment and streams and what impact the fire can have on it.

A trench was built by public works to catch any water runoff from the fire.

According to LaFayette police chief Bengie Clift, multiple employees were transported by Puckett EMS due to smoke inhalation to area hospitals. No serious injuries due to burns have been reported.

Josh O'Bryant is a reporter for the Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga.