Kansas City, Mo. Multiple explosions at a chemical distribution facility shook an industrial area of Kansas City on Wednesday, sending an ominous smoke cloud above the downtown skyline and prompting the evacuation of nearby schools, homes and businesses.
There were no immediate reports of injuries, but police were busy driving up and down nearby streets warning that more explosions were expected at the Chemcentral facility, which stores and distributes various chemicals and solvents.
Fire officials also told residents throughout the city to avoid picking up debris carried by the dark cloud that streamed out of downtown, although Fire Chief Richard Dyer said the material was not highly toxic. The cloud appeared to be dropping a sticky substance as it moved to the southwest. Dyer said it was unlikely that anything falling was dangerous, but officials urged caution anyway.
"None of these are what those of us in the field would call exotic chemicals. None of these have a high rating for toxicity," he said, adding that officials were monitoring the air within a two-mile radius.
Ken Hannon, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, said a number of chemicals are at the property, including mineral spirits, turpentine and other solvents.
"I'm looking through the list. I'm not seeing anything that's jumping out at me" as particularly hazardous, he said. "Flammability seems to be the main concern right now for most of these chemicals."
The explosions northeast of downtown sent up smoke that could be seen for at least 30 miles around the city.
Dyer said officials were evacuating people within a one-mile radius of the plant, including about 500 people who lived in area, and officials had gone door-to-door through several blocks to get people out. A shelter was being set up at North Kansas City High School.
Dyer said firefighters had abandoned attempts to fight the blaze and would just let it die out, hopefully by Thursday morning, although it could burn for a few days.
The fire began after several 55-gallon drums containing chemicals exploded, touching off more explosions and fires, Kansas City Fire Marshal Floyd Peoples said. Dyer said steam was seen from three, 30,000-gallon tankers, but they apparently did not explode.
Plant superintendent Craig Nienhueser said workers heard a hissing noise inside the building. He went around to the back and noticed some flames, at which point the workers were evacuated.
"We are just thankful everybody is OK. Now we just have to work with the fire department to get this contained.
"Fifty-some years and not a problem," he said of the facility.
Dan Brennan, an attorney at Chemcentral's headquarters in Bedford Park, Ill., said the plant has 15 to 20 workers.
Emergency responders from the Environmental Protection Agency were on the scene and gathering information.
"We just don't know what's up there at this point," EPA spokeswoman Kim Olson said.
The Kansas City school district sent students from eight elementary schools in the northeast area to Paseo High School to keep them as far away from the explosions as possible, a district spokeswoman said.
Kansas City Southern shut down its rail yard operation near the plant and evacuated workers as a precaution.
Dyer said the Chemcentral facility did not have a history of problems, but it is a location that has always troubled the fire department because of its proximity to a casino and residential neighborhoods.
"It's a well-run facility with a pretty darn good safety record," he said. "When you ask if it's something that comes up as a problem facility - absolutely not."