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16,000 Evacuated in Chemical Fire

March 25, 1987

NANTICOKE, Pa. (AP) _ Chemical-laced smoke from a fire at a metal-processing plant prompted a 14- hour precautionary evacuation of 16,000 people in four communities Tuesday.

Mayor John Haydock lifted the evacuation order at 4:45 p.m. after environmental officials determined the air was safe around the Spencer Metal Processing Co.

Within an hour, the northeastern Pennsylvania community had sprung back to life as people unloaded suitcases and bags of belongings hastily gathered when local officials called for the evacuation about 2:20 a.m.

″It feels good to be home,″ said Mary Ann Galazin, who returned with her husband, Ronald, and their four children.

Ronald Galazin said that when the family had left their home four blocks from the plant the air smelled acidic and a white cloud hung over the plant.

The fire broke out at 12:30 a.m. on the rafters of the three-story factory, said Nick Gushka, a state fire marshal. The cause of the fire was not immediately known, he said.

David Wright, an on-scene coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said tests of the air showed safe levels of hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid and other chemical biproducts.

″A ring formed around the entire city,″ Fire Commissioner Mark Yeager said of the plume of smoke that rose from the burning brick building. Health Secretary Mark Richards said the smoke was gone by late afternoon.

Arthur Davis, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Resources, Gov. Robert P. Casey, and Richards visited Nanticoke after the evacuations of Nanticoke, West Nanticoke, Sheatown and Alden.

The 15 workers in the plant, which was destroyed, escaped uninjured, Yeager said. Two firefighters sustained minor injuries, he said.

The plant, which is in a residential area, used 10 chemicals, including sulfuric acid, phosphoric acid, nitric acid and ammonia, Yeager said. Open vats chemicals and at least six 55-gallon drums of sulfuric acid also were at the site.

Mark Carmon, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Resources, said the department took water samples of the Susquehanna River at Nanticoke and two points downstream.

The department expected to know by Wednesday whether chemicals involved in the fire reached the river via a nearby creek.

Carmon said the city of Danville, which receives part of its water supply from the river, would shut off its intake valve Tuesday night as a precaution. Any toxic substances in the water would take until late Wednesday morning or early afternoon to reach the Danville intake, he said.

Spencer Metal Processing has hired a contractor to clean up the plant site, which will be monitored by Environmental Resources and the EPA, Carmon said.

Although a few people returned to their homes earlier in the day, saying officials overreacted by ordering the evacuation, the governor and Haydock said the action was appropriate.

″It’s always, I think, beneficial to err on the side of caution when public health and safety are concerned,″ Casey said.

Haydock said he and other officials tried to be especially cautious about 60 percent of the residents are over 65.

Casey had declared a state of emergency at 7 a.m., roadblocks were set up, and about 25 National Guardsmen and 39 state police officers patrolled the town for security, Haydock said.

Hospitals in nearby Wilkes-Barre took patients from Nanticoke hospitals and nursing homes and remained on alert.

Thousands who fled to Hanover High School, about eight miles away, basked in the sun outside Tuesday.

″It’s terrible, all them poisons on this earth, said Ernest Locke, a 78- year-old Nanticoke native. ″Everytime there’s an accident, there’s poison. It’s getting worse all the time.″

He and his wife, Rose, and next door neighbor, Louis Klinitski, left their homes about 2:30 a.m., taking the Lockes’ two cats with them.

″We didn’t know how long we’d be away, and we didn’t want to lose them,″ Locke said.

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