By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Nearly three dozen firefighters from Atmore and three outside agencies worked more than six hours last Friday, January 6, to contain a fire that destroyed a warehouse building at a local fertilizer plant and threatened the contents of several rail cars filled with liquid sulfur.
City firefighters were dispatched at 9:25 a.m. to Tiger-Sul, just off U.S. 31 and across the highway from Atmore Country Club. They arrived five minutes later to find that the warehouse was fully engulfed in flames and a brush fire had broken out along the tracks beneath at least three tankers holding molten sulfur.
All off-duty AFD personnel were called to the scene; Poarch Creek Indians Fire Department and Nokomis volunteer Fire Department units were also dispatched under mutual-aid agreements.
“Naturally, we shut the country club down and evacuated the golf course,” AFD Chief Ron Peebles said. “The building was pretty much gone when we got there, so our biggest concern was those rail cars. We had to keep that liquid sulfur from exploding.”
While Nokomis VFD personnel sprayed a constant stream of water on the heated tankers from the east, Atmore and Poarch firefighters sprayed them from the west. A steamy mist rose from each as water landed on them.
While that was being done, more than a dozen emergency personnel were tackling another problem, one that could have had far-reaching effects.
“The woods were on fire behind the runoff ditch, where sulfur waste is diverted to a holding pond,” Peebles said. “When sulfur burns, it’s like lava, it’s a whole different monster. We put one of our guys on a Tiger-Sul loader, trying to dam the ditch and keep the runoff out of Brushy Creek, and we had several men with shovels doing the same thing.
“We were able to stop it even before it got to the holding pond. How we did it, I don’t know, but we did.”
Meanwhile, a hazardous materials team from Escambia County (Fla.) Fire Rescue arrived and began monitoring the air around the fire site as a black, sulfur-laden cloud hovered above the area and winds out of the northwest kept the cloud near the ground.
Escambia County Emergency Management Agency Director David Adams also arrived and kept the firefighting team apprised of the readings.
“We evacuated the golf course because the wind was pushing the smoke from the fire down, closer to the ground,” the AFD chief said. “We had people monitoring the air and it was pretty clear except for right at the site.”
As a precautionary measure, Atmore police officers went door-to-door to homes and businesses in the area near the fertilizer plant, apprising them of the situation and suggesting that they remain inside. Police also closed U.S. 31 to traffic and were able to notify CSX Transportation in time to stop all train travel through the area.
Firemen made use of the two hydrants near the plant, which suffered the loss of its entire production facility when fire raged through it nearly six years ago, but also had to shuttle water to the site in tanker trucks.
More than water, though, fresh oxygen bottles had to be shuttled from AFD Station 2 to the fire site.
“We were shuttling water and air,” Peebles said. “I can’t put an exact number on it, but I would say we used over 100 air bottles. We had one guy dedicated to refilling the bottles, and he had to make five trips back to the station. A bottle usually lasts about 45 minutes, but when you’re really going at it, it’s more like 15 minutes.”
Two MedStar ambulances were also dispatched to the scene. Their crews checked blood pressure and other vital signs of each fireman and made sure each was properly hydrated as he prepared to re-enter the firefighting fray.
Atmore City Council members Chris Harrison (who works at Tiger-Sul) and Mayor Pro Tem Shawn Lassiter supplied Gatorade and bottled water to the sweat-dripping firefighters.
“It was an extraordinary effort,” Peebles said. “Everybody did a heck of a job — the firefighters, the haz-mat guys, Atmore police, the councilmen, everybody. We were able to get the fire out and to dam and dock the runoff ditch and keep that runoff out of the creek. There were so many wheels turning at one time that it was organized chaos, but we got the job done.”
The county EMA director told reporters the fire involved “a sulfur product, either powdered, dry or granular,” but “not in its molten state.”
Peebles said two of his men suffered skin irritation from the incident, while Capt. Jerry Gehman reported this week that one Nokomis volunteer was still suffering chest congestion from breathing the acrid smoke. Unconfirmed reports are that a Poarch firefighter was hurt but escaped serious injury when a falling structural pole hit his helmet.
The major battle ended around 3:45 p.m., when the last units cleared the scene. Peebles said AFD fire crews returned Friday afternoon, when the charred ruins began smoldering. He went back on Saturday to take care of some minor flare-ups, then went back Sunday and discovered no hot spots or other possible trouble areas.
“I’ll say it again, this was a heck of a job by everybody involved,” said Peebles, who admitted his mind immediately went back to the 2017 fire, which was fought by more than 100 firefighting personnel, when Friday’s first report came in. “Thank goodness it wasn’t as bad as the fire they had five or six years ago.”
The cause of the blaze was still undetermined late Monday, January 9, as AFD continued its investigation. Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) is also expected to conduct a separate investigation.