Local firefighters respond to Hudson explosion

When multiple explosions triggered a raging fire at a chemical storage facility in Hudson on Saturday, Caldwell County called out for help.

Caldwell firefighters were battling a blaze that was out of control at the RPM Wood Finishes Group plant, so they put out a call to Catawba County firefighters for additional personnel.

In less than an hour, more than 50 Catawba County firefighters and 10 apparatuses were headed to Hudson to assist.

“It’s about one of the largest fires we’ve been to in recent years,” said Conover Fire Department Chief Mark Hinson, who took a fire engine and a crew of six firefighters to Hudson. “There were still explosions occurring when they arrived, and it was still out of control when we first got there.”

Hinson said when his crew arrived, their assignment was to extinguish the fire in the building adjacent to where the initial explosion occurred.

Conover fire was one of 30 total departments to help subdue the blaze Saturday that forced the evacuation of homes and businesses surrounding RPM Wood Finishes Group plant, located at 3194 Hickory Blvd. in Hudson. Hickory, Newton, Maiden and Long View fire departments were some of the other departments involved from Catawba County helping extinguish the fire at the plant.

The warehouse that stored drums of chemicals – in manufactured and raw form – was all that burned at the facility, which makes RPM President Ronnie Holman thankful for all the firefighter’s help.

“We do want to publicly acknowledge the job the firefighters did,” Holman said. “We can’t give them enough credit for their efforts. They certainly kept the potential for the fire to be much worse under control. It was an outstanding job on their part.”

RPM, which manufactures wood and industrial metal finishing coatings for furniture and cabinets, was also able to resume operations Tuesday because of firefighter’s efforts, Holman said.

The cause of the fire is still unknown.
“I think it’s always important to call neighboring departments whenever you need assistance,” said Newton Fire Department Chief Kevin Yoder, who sent a ladder truck and three personnel to Hudson. “It has occurred in the past when we have called for assistance out of the county in the past.”

Yoder said his department rarely gets calls for “inter-state mutual aid,” but responds to mutual aid calls within the county on a weekly basis.

“Usually, it’s a pretty large incident when they call for that many resources,” Yoder added.

Traditionally, counties requesting mutual aid will go to the state for help, and the state then contacts county fire marshals, said Catawba County Fire Marshal Mark Pettit.  

“You try to prepare for a worse case scenario, but that’s not always possible,” Pettit said. “If we are able to help, we are going to help. If we request help from them, then they reciprocate in kind.”

Julia Jarema, public information officer with the N.C. Division of Emergency Management, said there are inter-state contractual agreements between counties.

“They do agree to participate in mutual aid programs in contracts they sign every year,” Jarema said.

Jarema was unsure if different counties are compensated by the state for mutual aid participation.

Hinson said Conover Fire has helped other counties in the past. When the Synthron Inc. chemical manufacturing facility exploded near Morganton in 2006, for example, Hinson sent a crew to respond.

“Nowadays, with an (incident) large in size, several departments aren’t able to handle it alone,” Hinson said. “A lot of rural departments have people out of the station, and they have to rely on mutual aid help to get it controlled. Instead of tiring out everybody, you keep calling throughout the duration and plan for what you need at a certain time. Doing that, you can send people back to their communities and they can rest up and provide help to their (respected) jurisdiction.”

In the past, Catawba County has also called for mutual aid from Alexander County for a wood fire as well as Charlotte to use their HazMat team, among other incidents, Hinson said.

As for the RPM facility, Holman does not expect the damages to stop his workflow.

“It doesn’t threaten our ability to move forward,” he said, noting that there was minimal water damage and a puncture in the roof of the primary manufacturing facility caused when a drum exploded, went airborne and landed on top of the structure.

Meanwhile, a team from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency arrived Saturday from Atlanta, spending Sunday and Monday monitoring cleanup efforts and conducting tests to make sure there were no public or environmental health impacts from the explosions and fire.

EPA On-scene Coordinator Matt Huyser said hazardous materials teams were able to provide necessary monitoring of the situation Saturday while firefighters extinguished the fire.

The EPA team continued to monitor cleanup and conducted tests to make sure there were no additional hazards or potential for further impacts once the debris was removed and taken to another facility for disposal.
Huyser said the primary focus was on the impact to Gunpowder Creek, which runs behind RPM. Water runoff from the suppression efforts flowed into the stream Saturday, and that was a concern.

Huyser said crews worked downstream some 5-8 miles taking water and sediment samples. Those will be sent for laboratory testing, but Huyser said initial field readings indicated no adverse impacts.

He said visual signs often are prevalent, such as the path of runoff that leave residuals, discoloration of water and damage to wildlife in the observed areas. He said none of that was seen.

“We’ll collect and send the samples for lab confirmation, but it’s looking good so far,” Huyser said.

Huyser said residents of the area probably will not feel any effects from the thick, black plume of smoke that could be seen as far away as Lenoir and Hickory. He indicated that close contact with it is needed to feel any of the effects that are a result of the chemical explosions, such as eye, nose and throat irritation or other respiratory issues.
Breathing apparatus supplying air helped firefighters overcome such impacts.

“You’d have to be in very close contact with the raw materials to experience those impacts,” Huyser said. “The plume is gone, and the air quality improved. That led to the evacuation being lifted. We wouldn’t expect to find anything that would have an adverse effect.

“This appears to be an immense success in that firefighters were able to save the rest of the facility and no environmental issues are showing up. Everything seems to be moving smoothly and swiftly.”

Nathan Key, of Lenoir News Topic, contributed to this report.