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Forest Park chief fights Conyers fire

By Ed Brock

Forest Park Fire Chief Eddie Buckholtz interrupted the last day of his week-long vacation to lend a hand in fighting the chemical plant fire in Conyers that sent a miles-long column of toxic smoke into Atlanta's skies.

The fire at the warehouse for BioLab, a company that produces chemicals for swimming pools and cleaning products began around 4:30 a.m. During the day the gigantic cloud of chlorine tainted smoke forced the temporary closing of I-20 and the evacuation of homes and business within a mile and a half of the burning structure.

Buckholtz, who is an operations chief for the Georgia Mutual Aid Group, was too busy to talk Tuesday, Forest Park Fire Maj. Paul Beamon said. GMAG is the system under which fire departments around the state cooperate across county lines.

The Clayton County Fire Department was also contacted about assistance but did not send any units, spokeswoman Amy Nix said.

"They had wanted to know if we had tankers and we don't have that kind of apparatus," Nix said, adding that the county has enough fire hydrants and so tanker trucks aren't necessary.

By Tuesday evening the BioLab fire was still burning and was expected to keep burning possibly for days. Fire officials said the blaze had been contained in the 400-foot by 500-foot warehouse. Multiple explosions were seen and heard at the warehouse before the fire was contained.

It was not immediately clear how the fire started or what chemicals were burning, although authorities said chlorine was one of the chemicals involved.

That was probably one reason why the fire department basically has to let the fire burn out, said Vacal Caldwell, training officer with the Clayton County Emergency Management Agency.

"If you get water inside chlorine you get acid and that can start a fire," Caldwell said.

Caldwell recalled a similar blaze at a pool supply company on Tara Boulevard that occurred in the late 1980s.

"We had a large containment area and evacuation area as a result of it," Caldwell said.

Under Georgia Emergency Management Agency guidelines fire departments in the state are required to hold drills for such massive fires every three years. Last year they held the drill in Morrow with the scenario that a tanker car on a train had caught fire.

Morrow is also the location of one of Clayton County's largest industrial facilities, the Sherwin-Williams Co. paint manufacturing plant at Jonesboro Road and Mt. Zion Road. Time and development have increased the threat that a fire at that facility would pose.

"It was built before the population grew up around it," Morrow Fire Chief David Wall said. "They built it out in the middle of nowhere for a purpose. It's not in the middle of nowhere now."

Sherwin-Williams' corporate headquarters did not return a phone call seeking comment on their safety procedures Tuesday, but Wall said his department has a very good working relationship with the plant. The firefighters perform regular walk-throughs and inspections of the plant.

"I've got crews that know that plant very well," Wall said.

There are various other facilities around the county that use or store large amounts of chemicals. Caldwell said Home Depot and Lowes home improvement stores also have such chemicals on hand.

Recreation Factory Warehouse, which sells swimming pools and pool supplies, keeps between 500 to 800 pounds of chlorine on hand, manager Tim Pye said.

"There are a lot of regulations on that," Pye said.

The store's corporate headquarters conducts checks three or four times a year. Some of the precautions they take include keeping granular material stored over liquid material to prevent drips that would cause dangerous combinations of chemicals. And lately the products come in much safer, heavy plastic containers.

Pool owners have to be careful when putting the chemicals in the pools to avoid mixing chemicals, Pye said.

The fire slowed the morning commute into Atlanta. Several roads around the BioLab plant were closed for at least two hours. Interstate 20, a main east-west thoroughfare into Atlanta, was also closed during rush hour as smoke cut visibility.

"We want to apologize profusely for the disruption we've caused. There were no employees injured ? that's what's most important to us," said Monty Eckles, vice president of Lawrenceville-based BioLab.

Children, elderly and those with asthma, emphysema or other respiratory problems are at highest risk for problems associated with chlorine exposure, said Dr. Gaylord Lopez, director of the Georgia Poison Center.

The first sign of exposure to chlorine is a skin rash or irritation. Severe exposure leads to upper airway congestion.

"Once you start smelling the stuff, you're probably being exposed," Lopez said. Chlorine smells like a swimming pool.

Coughing, choking, gagging or wheezing could indicate a dangerous level of exposure and the possible onset of chemical pneumonia.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.