Indiana, PA - Indiana County

One hurt during fire at tear gas plant/PHOTOS

by RANDY WELLS and CHAUNCEY ROSS, on July 03, 2012 2:30 PM

BLACKLICK TOWNSHIP -- One worker was taken to Indiana Regional Medical Center for evaluation and firefighters showered under hoses to rinse off chemical irritants Tuesday during a fire at the Nonlethal Technologies plant, a tear gas processing facility along Route 286 southwest of Indiana.

At the same time, air-monitoring equipment set up downwind from the plant detected no dangerous levels of contamination in the dark smoke that vented from the plant.

[Shown here, volunteer firefighters Travis Glass was washed down by Bill McKee of the hazmat team to reduce the risk of irritation from exposure to tear-gas components while fighting the fire at Nonlethal Technologies.]

"I heard pops -- like a firecracker going off," said Trista Skinner, a supervisor at the plant.

The building then started to fill with smoke mixed with tear gas released from pellets that are loaded into 37 mm projectiles, she said.

Skinner did not know what sparked the fire that caused all employees to be evacuated. They stood watching from across the highway as the smoke-tear gas mixture vented from the building and while firefighters from several companies fought the blaze.

The company has about 40 employees.

A fire that started by accident in the plant in December 2009 caused nearly $1 million in damage. That blaze gutted the main office and production building and destroyed an inventory of riot- and crowd-control products and the supplies of chemicals used to make them.

Tom Stutzman, director of the Indiana County Emergency Management Agency, said one worker was exposed to burning chemicals in the latest fire while directing some of the first volunteer firefighters who arrived at the scene. The worker's condition did not appear to be serious, he said.

Fire crews responded at 10:31 a.m., according to the county 911 website, when workers reported an explosion and a fire.

Stutzman said the fire destroyed a two-story, wood-frame and metal-sided building.

The county hazardous materials team set up a "gross decontamination" point for firefighters as they came away from the burning building. They were hosed down while still fully clad in their bunker gear.

"Everything they're wearing up there gets washed off" when they come away from the fire, Stutzman said. "Some are experiencing skin irritation."

Other dangers of exposure to the burning tear gas were eye irritation and difficulty breathing, he said.

The powdered chemicals that burned are used in riot and crowd-control products.

At the scene, company owner Scott Oberdick said a machine malfunction may have started the fire.

He said the plant may be back in operation Wednesday. Employees have been working four 10-hour shifts, Monday through Thursday.

Stutzman said the flames were near an area where some type of pyrotechnics was stored.

"We could have had an early Fourth of July," he said.

In addition to the washdown point, a rehabilitation station was set up to provide cold drinks for firefighters and medical intervention if needed because of the hot weather. Crews took turns going into the building to attack the fire.

Skinner said there was not much that could be done to extinguish the chemicals other than leaving them burn themselves out.

The Aultman, Black Lick, Blairsville and Saltsburg fire departments were the first dispatched to the scene, and the Seward, Bell Township and Homer City fire companies were activated for standby assignments. Dark smoke continued to billow over the nearby trees, but a stiff breeze helped to dissipate the smoke.

Route 286 was closed to traffic while emergency crews worked at the scene.

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