An explosion at a northern Illinois chemical plant Monday morning sparked enormous fires that sent flames and huge plumes of thick black smoke high into the air and debris raining onto the ground, prompting evacuations and fires that could burn for days.
On 7am local time (12:00 GMT), Monday emergency crews rushed to the scene of the fire near Rockton, northwest of Chicago, at Chemtool Inc., a company that manufactures lubricants, grease products and other fluids, and is, according to the company, the largest manufacturer of grease in the Americas.
Rockton Fire Department Chief Kirk Wilson and an official from Chemtool’s parent company, Lubrizol Corp said about 70 employees were evacuated safely from the plant, and two firefighters had suffered minor injuries.
The plumes became so big they were being picked up on weather radar. Wilson said there was “no danger to air quality at ground level”.
Wilson said firefighters had stopped using water to extinguish the blaze to prevent an “environmental nightmare” if the runoff were to enter the nearby Rock River.
It could be “several days” before the fluids that caught fire burn out, he said.
“We can’t speculate how long it will take to put out the fire,” he said. ”We ask that the public be patient with us.”
Wilson said on Tuesday an industrial firefighting crew had arrived and was digging trenches to protect the Rock River from any spillages. Absorbent booms were also placed on the river to block runoff.
Crews from 84 fire departments responded – some fanning out to handle spot fires, grass fires, and burning debris that the wind pushed into the community. Wilson said those fires were caused by burning pieces of cardboard boxes and chunks of wooden pallets, not chemicals falling from the sky.
Once the river was secured, firefighters could use foam to put out the burning oil. Wilson said there were half a million gallons that could take a week to burn out on their own.
Trisha Diduch, planning and development administrator for Rockton, estimated about 1,000 people were affected by the evacuation order.
There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Alyssa King, who lives in an apartment less than a kilometre from the site, said she woke up to what sounded like slamming doors.
“It woke me up. It was shaking the whole apartment building,” said King, who had been at home with her 8-year-old daughter.