Smoldering bags of polyvinyl chloride remain stacked inside a demolished warehouse. - Photo by Brad Stewart.

Smoldering bags of polyvinyl chloride remain stacked inside a demolished warehouse.

Photo by Brad Stewart.

At about 10:40 p.m. on Friday, April 23, 2004, the lights suddenly went out across Illiopolis, Illinois, population 900. For the next 67 hours, Fire Chief Brad Stewart and the 23-member Illiopolis Fire Department would be occupied with the cause of that darkness — a shattering explosion that devastated a local polyvinyl chloride manufacturing plant.

"About five seconds after the lights went out, I could feel my house shaking," Chief Stewart said. "In the back of my mind, I knew where we were going."

Five workers perished as a result of blast that demolished a 300-foot-long production building and extensively damaged other plant facilities. Flames spread through a warehouse stacked with bags of PVC that burned for nearly three days. Eventually, more than 275 emergency personnel representing 28 central Illinois fire departments responded to the Illiopolis fire.

Illiopolis is famed in Illinois as the geographical center of the state. Located about 20 miles east of the state capital in Springfield, Illiopolis is home to the region's major industrial concern, a chemical plant that produces 325 million pounds of PVC annually.

When Stewart saw the devastation at the burning plant, the first thing he did was call his wife. He told her to take their 2½-year-old twins and get out of town. "That was the only way I knew I could focus on the fire," Stewart said.

Authorities soon followed with an order to evacuate Illiopolis and parts of nearby Buffalo, Dawson and Mechanicsburg.

A report issued by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Boardstates that vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), a highly flammable chemical, fueled the explosion and initial fire. VCM is the primary raw material in the polyvinyl chloride manufacturing process.

The report states that the mostly likely scenario leading to the explosion is that an operator bypassed safety systems to open the bottom valve of a full, heated and pressurized PVC reactor, mistaking it for an adjacent reactor being cleaned. That mistake released a torrent of VCM that soon ignited.

Even before the first dispatch call was issued by Sangamon County 911, Stewart rushed to the Illiopolis Fire Station a block away from his home and about a mile from the plant. The initial response included a pumper, tanker truck and six firefighters.

"When I left the firehouse, I requested help from the closest town," Stewart said. "We understood that it was just a corner of the plant and thought we could handle it." Then Stewart caught sight of flames rising at least 100 feet above the plant.

"I called the county dispatchers and told them to get me all the mutual aid they could get hold of, plus the Springfield Fire Department because they have a hazmat unit." The two closest neighbors, Mechanicsburg and Buffalo, were soon en route with three pumpers and two tankers.

Meanwhile, Stewart assessed the scene. The production building had been ripped open by the blast. At least a quarter of the 300-foot-long warehouse next to it was ablaze with heavy smoke drifting south. Fortunately, the fire was far enough removed from three 250,000-gallon spheres containing vinyl chloride on the northside of the plant to not pose an immediate danger.

"We made two drivebys to evaluate the situation," Chief Stewart said. He then dispatched a tanker to block the road on the west side of the plant and requested a roadblock at the edge of town.

The first 45 minutes at the scene were chaotic, Stewart said. Employees who reported to the main entrance of the plant indicated that the lines feeding material to the production facility had been shut down. They confirmed that other employees were trapped and injured but were unsure of how many. Firefighters trying to enterthe site at other locations were forced to cut the chains on two secondary gates.

Two employees rescued by coworkers were given immediate medical aid for cuts and fractures. Injured workers were taken to hospitals in Springfield and Decatur. At least one victim was transported by helicopter.

"Deluge" systems are fire sprinkler systems designed to deal with special hazards by rapidly applying a great deal of water over a wide area to deal with special hazards. Strangely enough, the most dramatic rescue by firefighters in those first moments of the disaster involved a man who almost drowned, Stewart said.

"He had been inside the building that exploded and was thrown nearly 100 feet," Stewart said. "He was laying in about two feet of water released by the plant's deluge system, his legs pinned by debris. I kept hearing somebody yelling, but I couldn't tell where he was. Finally, I saw some movement and found him barely holding his head above water."

Having suffered severe burns over 60 percent of his body, the rescued worker died from his injuries nearly three weeks later.

Firefighters use a handline to dampen the bags. - Photo by Brad Stewart.

Firefighters use a handline to dampen the bags.

Photo by Brad Stewart.

Several more injured employees thrown clear of the building were found. However,it was at least two hours before the number of missing was definitively narrowed tofour from the 18 employees on duty at the time of the explosion.

Interior searches for the missing would have to wait until the fire was brought under control. Lack of water hindered that effort, Stewart said.

"As soon as we dropped hose, we knew that it was too big to handle with handlines," he said. "I determined that it was better to let it burn than to try and extinguish it and not know where the fumes released were going. We set up monitors to slow down the warehouse fire. When we connected to the hydrant, we discovered that the deluge had already pumped 1 million gallons of water.

"That pretty much used up the water in storage. When the power was knocked out, that knocked out the water system. It could not pump itself back up."

Springfield is the county seat of Sangamon County. It is also home to one of the few hazardous materials response teams in central Illinois, said Springfield Fire Department Division Chief Kevin Switzer. He was the ranking Springfield firefighter to respond to the Illiopolis emergency.

"There are about 30 hazmat teams in the state of Illinois, but most of them are inthe Chicago area," Switzer said. "For downstate, there are only a handful."

Springfield, population 112,000, is a white-collar community with its biggest employers being government offices, insurance companies, and hospitals. Switzer said the Illiopolis explosion and fire was the biggest emergency he had responded to in 24 years with the Springfield Fire Department.

"We only had two target facilities as far as a chemical incident was concerned — the plant in Illiopolis and our own power plant," Switzer said.

The 217-member Springfield Fire Department is organized in three divisions — operations, safety and training. Switzer's division, safety, deals with public education and fire investigation. He is also responsible for special teams such as the hazardous materials response unit.

Initially, the call from Illiopolis was for the hazmat team, Switzer said. Springfield's hazmat units include a refurbished beverage truck that serves as a mobile toolbox, a truck-trailer combination that serves as a decontamination unit and another truck-trailer that is a science and office area carrying reference material and protective clothing.

"We started shifting people around among the engine houses to consolidate the hazmat people on shift to respond with the equipment," Switzer said. "Luckily, we had quite a few of them at the downtown station. But we did have a couple of people that we pulled in from outside houses. We wanted to keep as many of the engine companies in service as possible."

Before the hazmat team could depart, Illiopolis made an additional request for a mutual aid fire response. A fire engine and a battalion chief were added to the departing contingent. Eventually, Springfield would also call in its portable cascade system for refilling self-contained breathing apparatus.

Reaching the scene took nearly 30 minutes more than the normal travel time. In case the smoke blowing south was toxic, public safety officials had closed a 20-mile stretch of Interstate 72. This forced the responders from Springfield to navigate dirt roads across country to stay clear of the cloud and still reach Illiopolis.

Stewart established a command center and staging area a mile east of the plant to accommodate the incoming help. Placing the command center so far from the fire proved to be sound thinking. Changing wind directions pushed the smoke from the fire almost 360 degrees around the burning plant in the next 24 hours.

"When Springfield got there, they asked what I needed," Stewart said. "I said 'I need advice.'"

Switzer put Stewart together with one of his hazmat chiefs to run operations at the scene while he remained at the command center. The county responded to the scene with a command vehicle that Switzer took charge of.

"I let Illiopolis deal with the volunteers and our guys deal with our career people," Switzer said. "They all did a really good job. We had a lot of cooperation."

However, Switzer said he was impressed by the degree that the volunteer departments already had things organized.

"By the time we got to Illiopolis, the closest departments were already there with their tankers," he said. "They did a magnificent job hauling water. We were never at a lack for water"

Stewart estimates that the tankers working in relay moved 750,000 gallons of water to the scene. The Illiopolis Fire Department pumper operated continuously for three days. Engines using portable drop tanks were stationed on opposite sides of the burning plant to keep a continuous flow that would cool exposures. Firefighters used 2½-inch monitors and hand lines to deliver the water.

"We could not pump more water from the town," Stewart said. "The water system only had a 170,000-gallon capacity and when we pumped it out there was no power to build that back up." Power was not restored to Illiopolis residents until the next morning.

At the high point of the emergency, at least 30 tankers were operating at once. Dispatching the drivers had to be coordinated to keep them from drawing too much water from one or two locations. Keeping a steady rotation became increasingly difficult as the tankers traveled farther to fill up.

"We emptied the systems in Mechanicsburg, Buffalo and Dawson," Stewart said. "Since it was the middle of the night, these systems were able to replenish themselves before morning. In Rivertown, we broke a water main when we shut down a hydrant too fast. We were using water from a well at the Sangamon River."

Firefighters struggled to confine the fire spreading through the warehouse, Switzer said. That effort proved fruitless. "The only thing that was going to put that thing out was to get heavy equipment in there to tear those big piles of bags apart," he said. "It was basically plastic wrapped in plastic-lined paper bags. As the paper burned off, the contents would also burn, then melt into a sheet of plastic that shed water. Everything below that sheet continued to burn.

"Firefighters applied so much water that the runoff came within inches ofoverflowing the 8-foot deep retention ponds downhill of the plant, Switzer said.That runoff would have contaminated a nearby creek if the ponds had overflowed. Communications problems arose. Springfield operates on an 800 trunking system, while the county departments use UHF radios. The result was that Springfield andcounty responders could not talk directly to each other without going through the combined dispatch center in Springfield.

"It could have been better," Switzer said. "It didn't affect me so much back in the rear command post, but for my guys involved in operations, it would have been nice if we could have worked together directly with the volunteers."

Working directly with plant management became another issue for Switzer. The company assigned a chemist to work with the hazmat team to catalog the different materials throughout the facility.

"It took us a while to get a handle on everything that was there," Switzer said."The spheres were far enough away that we didn't have to worry about them, but there were other things we weren't sure about. There was organic peroxide, which can ignite on contact with air. There were recovery tanks and there were tanks containing acrylic acid that is used as an inhibitor to retard the chemical reactions."

The Springfield contingent included one firefighter who had worked at the plant 20 years earlier, Switzer said. He brought up another hazmat concern — particulate monitors.

"He said 'I remember when they put those things up and warned us about them having very strong radiological sources,'" Switzer said. "He said they had been hooked to the structural beams in the production facility, so we didn't know what kind of shape they were in. We did get some readings that concerned us, but we eventually found them all. They were still intact."

The search for the missing continued. Springfield firefighters entered the production building and found two bodies on the second floor. Another two bodies were found the next day under rubble on the ground floor.

"A woman was found under a freezer full of a product that goes off like a road flare if it gets above a certain temperature," Stewart said. "They made sure theyunderstood what they were dealing with before she was recovered Saturday afternoon."

The amount of debris from the blast made it difficult to maneuver emergency vehicles without risking a flat tire, Switzer said. Bodies recovered from the wreckage had to be carried long distances to the waiting ambulances, he said.

Other challenges presented themselves. Crowd control became an issue, Stewart said. Law enforcement did not have enough personnel to supervise road blocks on the multitude of small roads leading into the area, he said. Some people thought nothing of pushing aside unmanned barriers to go in for a closer look.

"Local people were coming out to see what was going on," Stewart said. "Some thought we should be doing more to fight the fire. I had to help them understand that we were not going to put anyone at unnecessary risk."

In hindsight, Switzer said he regretted not having established a designated area from which the media could operate.

"We had the media doing everything they could to get in," Switzer said. "Theyeven tried to get firemen to let them ride on their tankers. They wanted to be as close as they could."

After 28 hours at the scene, Springfield firefighters left for home. Although an environmental clean-up firm hired by the plastics plant arrived at noon Saturday, Illiopolis firefighters, working in shifts, would be on scene another 37 hours.

"On Monday, about four hours before we had the fire extinguished, the plant officials pulled everyone from the site into a 45-minute safety meeting, the same meeting they give every contractor that comes into the plant," Stewart said. "I told them they were about three days too late. Looking back now, we should have refused to attend and we would have gotten home to our families one hour earlier."

Other agencies responding to the scene included the federal EPA, state EPA, OSHA, the Chemical Safety Board and the FBI.

"The FBI wanted to make sure it was not a terrorist event," Stewart said. Due to structural instability and the possibility of exposure to dangerous chemicals, more than six weeks passed before the Chemical Safety Board investigators could access the most severely damaged areas of the plant.

For Stewart, the most important lesson taught by the Illiopolis disaster is that communications and resources are vital.

"Know what is available out there for you if you need it," Stewart said. "I had no idea that when I called for mutual aid that I could get so much."

For Switzer, the lesson learned is never postpone "pre-planning" or developing emergency contingencies to cover potential emergencies. The PVC plant had been pre-planned under its previous ownership. However, the fire department had not visited the plant in the two years since new management had taken over.

"We were planning to get together in July and do a new pre-plan of the building using our hazmat team," Switzer said.

Although the PVC plant owners expressed a desire to rebuild immediately after the Illiopolis blast, the facility had never reopened.

Editor's note: This after-action review appeared in "Disasters Man-Made" by David White and Anton Riecher that was published in 2011.