Bridgeport, Connecticut firefighters are still dealing with the aftermath of a five-alarm factory fire that spewed hazardous materials into the air and water and forced hundreds of residents from their homes Thursday night.
Officials are running environmental tests after a fire raged overnight at 2102 Seaview Avenue, a factory that houses JWC Roofing and Siding and the Rowayton Trading Company, which housed about 1,000 50-gallon drums of recycled industrial perfume products.
The fire was intense and Fire Chief Brian Rooney said there were several "tremendous" explosions. The perfumes ignited after the fire sparked Thursday evening and sent fireballs into the sky.
"It seemed every five minutes we were getting plumes coming into the air. Huge heatwaves were coming toward the firefighters who held their ground," Rooney said.
Assistant Fire Chief John Mazza said crews were still chasing down hot spots Friday evening, including two at the center of the blaze that have been inaccessible. Firefighters began to scale back their on-scene presence on Friday and crews were still concerned hotspots could flare up on Saturday.
“There are just areas of the structure, due to the structural integrity of the building’s collapse, we can’t get in there,” Mazza said. “The only way to get around these hot spots would be to pick the building apart with a machine and that’s not an option at this point in time.”
Environmental officials are worried that any chemical runoff from the factory fire could cause environmental problems. State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) officials said samples of the Yellow Mill River and the harbor show minute levels of material from the warehouse where the drums were stored. DEEP spent part of the evening Friday vacuuming up the runoff.
"There's a lot of hazardous materials," Mazza said. "Lot of dangers. Lot of explosions in this building, so it was quite hairy for a while here."
Air quality tests indicate there is no immediate public health threat to the community and the drinking water is safe, according to officials. Deputy Fire Chief Dominick Carfi said a private company provides the local water supply and there is no well water in the area.
As a precaution, fishing along the Bridgeport shoreline from the Fairfield border to Pleasure Beach is banned and recreational and commercial fishing is allowed only in open water.
The ban originally spanned from Norwalk to Milford, but has been lifted in the other towns. Shell fishing is banned from Fairfield to the Housatonic River.
Red foam in the water prompted the Coast Guard to fly a helicopter over the harbor and the shoreline Friday morning.
During the flight, officials noticed "heavy product" in the Yellow Mill Channel and a smaller amount at the head of the Pequonnock River, according to Coast Guard Commander Jonathan Theel.
“We want people to understand that this material is in the water and that we need to determine if it harmful. So please don’t fish,” said David Poynton, the emergency response coordinator for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, in a statement. "At this time, it is believed that the material is some type of dye. The bans will remain in place until we feel very confident that the water quality is OK.”
United Illuminating cut power to around 1,400 homes in the area while some 80 firefighters battled the blaze. Electricity was fully restored to Seaview Avenue by 6 p.m. Friday, according to Bridgeport public safety spokesman Bill Kaempffer.
Flames from the factory fire jumped to the roofs of about nine neighboring houses. Carfi said it’s a miracle no one lost a home. The facilities housing Rowayton and JWC, which together employ about 50 people, were both destroyed.
Now, efforts are focused on mitigating the environmental impact, assisting homeowners in repairing damage and helping companies find new locations so people can get back to work.
First responders said they were challenged by the fact that Material Safety Data Sheets identifying chemicals in the factory were lost inside the burning buildings.
The Fairfield County hazmat team was called in and local officials reached out to the Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency because of concerns about the Yellow Mill River.
Two firefighters suffered minor injuries – including heat exhaustion and an ankle injury – but no one was seriously hurt, officials said. The Red Cross provided first responders with food and water.
Around 400 local residents were evacuated to St. Ambrose Church on Boston Avenue, according to Red Cross spokesman Paul Shipman. As of Friday morning, the Red Cross continued to help 13 people affected by the fire.
Authorities are investigating to determine the cause of the blaze, but collapsed walls have prevented crews from entering the factory buildings.
Until tests come back showing that it will be safe to fish, no shellfishing is allowed from Fairfield to the Housatonic River or in the harbor.