Feb. 26 - Bristol Herald Courier - ELIZABETHTON - Black smoke billowed from the roof of the mostly vacant North American Corp. plant Friday as flames engulfed the building that once housed the city's largest employer. Fearing a release of potentially deadly fumes officials closed city schools - two of which are within sight of the plant and put nearby Sycamore Shoals Hospital and residents on alert that an evacuation might be ordered. Before dawn, officials were worried that more than 5 million pounds of chlorine stored at the former North American Rayon complex could mix with water being used to douse the flames and give off a caustic vapor.
But the evacuation watch was called off at about noon, when officials learned that the chlorine was the type used to purify swimming pools and would not react violently with water. The blaze still was burning after 10 p.m. as exhausted fire fighters from more than two dozen area departments continued to battle the flames. No one had been injured in the blaze as of press time Friday.About half a dozen people were working at the plant at 4:30 a.m., when the fire broke out in a near-by shipping area. It initially was fueled by materials including corrugated boxes, said company President Charles Green.
“The sprinklers went off, and that's what got them puzzled,” he said. “They found it and started trying to put it out with handheld fire extinguishers, but they couldn't contain it and called the fire department.”Within a short time, an entire section of the plant went up in flames, sending a pillar of smoke hundreds of feet into the air. It could be seen more than 10 miles away in Johnson City to the west and Bluff City to the north.
The cause of the fire was unknown. said Mike Shouse, Elizabethton's fire chief. He said that would not be investigated until the fire was put out. "The biggest part of what is burning is the roof." Shouse said. 'Where they have patched the roof over the years, there's a roundup of' 12 to 18 inches of tar, and that's what is causing all this smoke."
As the fire burned into the afternoon, part of the roof at the 1.3 million-square-foot plant collapsed.“That's why we're not putting anyone inside the building to do an aggressive attack,” the fire chief said. “It would be too dangerous.”Officials who at first were concerned about the chlorine fumes had a new worry as the day wore on. Officials said Elizabethton's water supply suffered during the drought this past fall and that the city's water source had not fully recovered.
“It's gotten to the point where they're cutting back on consumption of water from city hydrants and are bringing in more water by tankers,” said Jerry Fleenor, who added that water was being siphoned from nearby streams. Fleenor, Sullivan County's emergency management director, was among the scores of workers who crossed the county line to help Elizabethton fire officials.
Runoff from the firefighting efforts made its way into the Watauga River, which runs behind the plant, and was believed responsible for a fish kill. “They're still trying to pin down exactly what it is in the runoff that might have caused it,” Fleenor said, adding that booms had been placed on the river to absorb a foamy substance and that water samples were sent to a laboratory for analysis.
Tennessee Emergency Management Agency officials said they had received reports that residents were picking dead fish out of the river, and the agency warned that eating them could be dangerous. Fleenor said it appeared the fish had suffocated.
The Tennessee Valley Authority also reduced flows at its Watauga and Wilbur dams as another means of keeping the toxic runoff from moving farther downstream into Johnson City and possibly affecting drinking water there, according to Fleenor. However, dam flows were back to normal by nightfall, Fleenor said.
“That means that they feel confident enough that they can let it dilute and take care of itself.” he said, adding that the Johnson City water department was “aggressively monitoring intakes.”
“Everything is within normal levels, and they're constantly monitoring,” Fleenor said at about 7 p.m. “If that changes, they'll shut down their water intake.” At the height of production in the 1960s, North American Rayon Corp., as the facility was once known, was the city's largest employer. But in 1997, most of its work force - about 1,300 people - were laid off.
Now, fewer than 100 people work at the plant, which still makes rayon fiber, according to Green, the company president.