A fire that apparently raged unchecked at an Atmore fertilizer plant for several hours before being discovered early Saturday morning (July 29) caused extensive damage to the facility, stopped production at a second factory for most of the day and forced hundreds of nearby residents to remain inside their homes for an extended period.
The blaze, at Tiger-Sul Products on Industrial Drive (just off U.S. 31) sent sulfur-laced smoke into the sky for several hours. Despite all the potential hazards, the fire left no injuries in its wake.
“It could have been a lot worse,” Atmore Fire Chief Ron Peebles said Monday morning. “Nobody got hurt, and that’s the main thing. This (a fire at the plant) has happened several times before, but the others were a lot easier. There’s no telling when this one started burning, but it was allowed to go so long before it was detected, that the fire had extended throughout the whole building by the time we got there.”
According to a release issued by Tiger-Sul officials, the fire was in the main production facility and did not affect any of the factory’s adjacent warehouses. The company, which produces sulfur-based specialty fertilizers, also reported that “at the time of the fire the plant was closed and no employees were present.”
Peebles said officials of the local plant reported that the last employee to leave the facility clocked out “around 11:00 Friday night.” The fire broke out at some point between then and daylight Saturday.
The alarm, which wasn’t received until 5:30 a.m., sent firefighters from Atmore and 10 other departments, along with personnel from 12 other agencies or entities in the surrounding area – and from as far away as Pensacola – rushing to the burning factory or to join nearby aid stations or command posts.
Reports show that 100 fire engines contributed to the fire-suppression effort. Gulf Construction Company provided a backhoe for moving smoldering debris, and a hazardous materials team from Saraland Fire Department remained on standby until the situation stabilized.
The fire chief said the flames were finally brought under control around 7 p.m., although he and several command-level personnel remained at the heavily damaged factory until after 8 p.m.
Peebles said the potentially harmful discharge prompted a “shelter in place order” under which 200 to 300 residents “in the immediate area” were ordered to stay inside their homes. It also led to the evacuation of all employees of Alto Products, which operates in the same industrial park, until “about 4 p.m.”
According to U.S. Homeland Security’s National Terror Alert Response Center, a shelter-in-place situation calls for individuals to go inside and seek refuge in a secluded interior room without windows and to turn off all fans, heating units and cooling units until authorities determine that the situation is safe.
City police officers wearing respirator masks diverted traffic around the scene, and Escambia County Sheriff’s Office deputies sent traffic from U.S. 31 onto Interstate 65 as the fire was being fought. The major traffic artery was eventually shut down from Industrial Drive, westward to James Road, for an extended time.
Atmore Country Club turned over its clubhouse to emergency personnel and provided use of golf carts to ferry fatigued firefighters to and from the site of the inferno. A golf tournament that had been scheduled at the club on Saturday was cancelled.
“The folks at the country club allowed Atmore Ambulance and the emergency medical crews from MedStar, Baldwin County EMS and Pensacola Fire Department Station 10 to use the place for a rehabilitation center,” Peebles explained. “They let us use the golf carts to haul firemen back and forth from the fire to the rehab center.”
He reported that no firefighters were injured, although several were given intravenous fluids to combat heat exhaustion and dehydration.
The firefighting task force also received refreshment from two local sources, as David’s Catfish House provided the hungry emergency personnel with 100 hamburgers, and the Circle K Food Store at the corner of U.S. 31 and Rockaway Creek Road provided drinks and other food.
Peebles added that the air in a wide radius was constantly monitored, as was the run-off from the thousands of gallons of water that were pumped onto the burning factory.
“We had air monitoring systems all over town, at the Florida line and up and down (Hwy.) 31 in a two-mile radius,” he said. “CSX (railroad) was a big help, too. They provided an air monitor on-scene and they tested the water run-off, which was neutral.”
Deputy State Fire Marshal Mike Talley was also at the scene on Saturday and returned Monday to try to determine the cause and origin of the fire.
Peebles, who has 40 years of firefighting under his belt, reported that the Tiger-Sul blaze, which buckled massive roof trusses, was one of the hottest he had ever encountered.
“There was extensive damage to the building, and four forklifts also caught fire,” he said. “It was a sulfur fire, so we knew it was going to be hot. That building has steel I-beam trusses that are about three feet wide, and they were twisted like a bread tie, so it had to be hot.”
Atmore Fire Department reports show that the following entities responded to the July 29 fire at Tiger-Sul or were placed on standby in case they were needed:
Atmore Ambulance Service
Atmore Fire Dept.
Atmore Police Dept.
Atmore Public Works (Street Dept.)
Century Volunteer Fire Dept.
Escambia Co. (Ala.) Sheriff’s Office
Escambia Co. (Fla.) EMS
Escambia Co. (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office
Flomaton Fire Dept.
Lottie Volunteer Fire Dept.
McDavid Volunteer Fire Dept.
Molino Volunteer Fire Dept.
Nokomis Volunteer Fire Dept.
Perdido Volunteer Fire Dept.
Poarch Creek Indian Fire Dept.
Poarch Creek Indian Police Dept.
Rabun Volunteer Fire Dept.
Saraland Fire Dept.
Walnut Hill Volunteer Fire Dept.
West Escambia Utilities