WAXAHACHIE, Texas – A fire at a chemical plant south of Dallas shot massive plumes of black smoke and bright orange flames into the sky Monday, forcing schoolchildren and residents to evacuate or take cover indoors to avoid possible exposure to dangerous gases.
Flames engulfed a large complex at a Magnablend, Inc., facility in Waxahachie, about 30 miles south of Dallas, where the fast-moving blaze consumed a fire truck at the scene and flames neared railroad tracks alongside the property.
Magnablend spokesman Donald Golden told WFAA-TV that the 25 to 30 employees who were inside a warehouse at the plant evacuated safely when the fire broke out before 11 a.m. Golden said the company manufactures about 200 products, including some that are hazardous when ignited, but there was no immediate word on what caused the blaze.
"I can only speculate on what's going on inside that building right now," Golden said of the 100,000-square-foot warehouse.
Waxahachie Fire Department spokeswoman Amy Hollywood said there were no reports of injuries in the area by midafternoon. Officials could not say for sure what was burning.
"It's the building that's burning, and there's chemicals inside, multiple kinds of chemicals," Hollywood said. "Saying which kind would be speculative."
Authorities ordered residents closest to the plant to evacuate, while others were advised to stay inside with doors and windows shut.
Jessenia Colin, an assistant general manager at a nearby Hampton Inn and Suites, said hotel staff members were turning off air vents so smoke and chemicals didn't enter the rooms. As they waited for news and watched the smoke billow, staff covered their mouths to protect against the heavy chemical smell that hung in the air, she said.
"It smells like a whole bunch of chemicals, like wrappers burning," Colin said. "It's making everyone's heads hurt."
Stephanie Otto said she was preparing her new restaurant for a Tuesday opening about a quarter-mile from the plant when she heard sirens and walked outside to see a "huge plume." She said she could hear what sounded like gun shots for about 15 minutes, and there was a strong smell of ammonia.
"It was huge," Otto said. "It looked like an atomic bomb went off."
Ellis County emergency management officials issued a mandatory evacuation order for an apartment complex, an elementary school and a junior college. Sheriff's officials urged residents not to drive toward the area of the fire.
Waxahachie Independent School District spokeswoman Nicole Mansell said Wedgeworth Elementary School students had been safely bused to another school's gymnasium by 12:25 p.m. Navarro College cancelled all classes for its 2,500 or so students.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was setting up air monitoring equipment to gauge whether further precautions were needed, said agency spokeswoman Lisa Wheeler. She said Magnablend has been in compliance with its state permits. A search of public documents revealed no significant violations for the company.
Magnablend, Inc., manufactures, blends and packages chemicals. Much of its business revolves around energy production, including chemicals used to stimulate oil and gas wells and hydraulic fracturing. The company was launched in Waxahachie in 1979 and now employs about 250 people, with operations in Pennsylvania, Wyoming and North Dakota as well as Texas.