The Rockton chemical plant fire shook the community in Illinois on Monday after countless homes were evacuated and authorities started to ascertain whether the water and air quality were safe.
Authorities are trying to determine what happened at the Chemtool plant. As of midday Monday, authorities urged over 150 Rockton residents and businesses to evacuate, as the flames continued to send plumes of smoke into the air. The HAZMAT team from the City of Rockford conducted an air quality test and determined there was no present danger at the ground level, however, people within one mile of the plant were “strongly suggested” to evacuate.
The Rockton chemical plant is known for manufacturing grease and oil, and residents are worried that dangerous chemicals will interfere with the air quality and pose a threat to human safety. Though the health risks of the potential chemicals are unknown, as a precautionary measure, officials urge everyone to stay clear.
Doctors have even suggested that those in the immediate area wear masks to prevent long-term exposure to dangerous chemicals. As the fire continues to burn and the building’s chemicals release, it’s possible that different chemicals will release and affect air quality.
Due to the combination of oil and grease present at the Chemtool plant, flames produced a massive conflagration that spread over 50 miles away. The plant is close to the Wisconsin border and about 100 miles northwest of Chicago. The building initially caught fire around 7 a.m. Monday, and firefighters are still combating flames.
At first, the safety of the employees at Chemtool was the highest priority, and a statement issued by the company confirmed the safety of each individual. “We have confirmed all on-site are safe and accounted for,” according to Chemtool. “Our concern right now is for the safety of all our employees and the surrounding community. As a precaution, authorities have evacuated residents in a one-mile radius of the site.”
Rockton Fire Chief Kirk Wilson announced that 70 employees have been evacuated safely, though a single firefighter was injured while at the scene. Wilson has not confirmed the extent of the firefighter’s injuries. The fire department has continued to fight the blaze into the afternoon and the fight is expected to continue into the night.
Though flames continue to rage, no further explosions are expected. Authorities are working hard to determine the cause of the fire. In its statement, Chemtool announced that “we do not yet know what caused this incident, but we will be working with local authorities and with our own risk management team to determine what happened and identify any corrective actions. We will share more details as they are known.”
According to an employee who was present as the fire began to engulf the building, the safety procedures were quick and effective as soon as the fire broke out. The employee, who only revealed his first name, Scott, said that he was at work for only an hour before the tragedy began.
He recalled that someone screamed “Fire!” just before alarms sounded. “Everybody that got us out of there — they were on top of it. We had plenty of time to get out,” he confirmed. “Everybody got out. It was pretty well organized.”
The worker also confirmed that “there’s a lot of grease, oil, and fluids in there,” and claimed that “it’s gonna burn for a while.” Scott did, however, admit that “if it was going to explode, it would’ve already done it. Those small explosions that everyone’s seeing are drums of fluid or grease.”
Though Chemtool has not confirmed the origin of the fire, Scott believes it started after a pipe that transfers hot grease broke. He admitted that there have been safety issues in the past that have forced evacuations, but nothing has come close to the scale of the current fire.
“This is the worst it’s ever, ever been,” Scott claimed. “We’re just seeing a lot of hard work go up in flames… we’re all scared and wondering what we’re gonna do.”
The Chemtool plant is expected to burn for days, according to the fire chief. Residents fear for their property and wonder when it’ll be safe to return.
“The center of this plume of smoke is dead-center where my property is,” one Rockton resident explained. “The chemicals that go into that building all day long… (I) have no idea what’s going to happen to the neighborhood.”
Many of the residents in the area are worried that the fire could potentially spread harmful chemicals. While the firefighters attempt to contain the oil-based fire, residents want to learn of the health risks involved with living near the Rockton chemical plant. In the next few days, authorities will continue to do tests on the water and air quality.
We will continue to update you as this story develops.