BRYAN, Texas – An evacuation order was issued for thousands of central Texas residents and Texas A&M University campus closed Thursday as a fire burned at a chemical plant and warehouse that processes explosive ammonium nitrate.
Black smoke settled over Bryan, a city of about 80,000 people about 100 miles north of Houston, after the fire started about noon at the nearby El Dorado Chemical Co., said fire dispatcher Andy Throne. The plant blends and packages fertilizer and other chemicals, including ammonium nitrate, a chemical used to make explosives.
The fire continued to smolder but had been brought under control Thursday night and the evacuation order was lifted for a majority of the city, said Bryan Fire Chief Mike Donoho. A scaled-back order remained in effect for only a small area surrounding the warehouse, including about 30 homes in Bryan.
A plume of smoke had extended more than 60 miles from the plant and emergency officials took samples to test for airborne toxins, said fire dispatcher Andy Throne. No explosions had been reported and no cause of the fire immediately cited.
St. Joseph Regional Health Center's emergency room treated 22 people with respiratory ailments or eye irritation possibly related to the fire before it began diverting people to College Station Medical Center, where spokeswoman Melissa Purl said 12 people were treated for smoke inhalation.
Evacuees were taken in at Texas A&M's Reed Arena — used as a shelter during hurricanes Katrina and Rita — and a middle school and high school in College Station, which is about seven miles south of Bryan. A&M's Pearce Pavilion was reserved for pets.
Bryan city officials said about 900 people arrived at the university by Thursday evening.
Texas A&M spokesman Lane Stephenson said offices and classes were closed as a precaution, but he anticipated classes resuming Friday.
El Dorado Chemical's Web site describes the facility as a place where customers can stock up on ammonium nitrate fertilizer "by the truckloads" 24 hours a day. The company said in a statement that it would conduct an internal review and cooperate with authorities' investigations into the fire.
"While we are thankful no injuries have been reported, we deeply regret the enormous inconvenience this incident has caused residents and businesses in Bryan and College Station as well as other nearby communities," the statement said.
In 1947, 576 people were killed and 5,000 more injured when two ships loaded with 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in Texas City. The explosion, one of the country's worst industrial accidents, shattered windows 25 miles away and blew two small planes out of the sky.