PASSAIC – More than 200 firefighters continued to battle an 11-alarm chemical fire that sent one to hospital early Saturday morning.
Freezing temperatures froze stormwater runoff and created even more hazards for first responders in three counties.
Mayor Hector Lora said most of the fire, which started around 8:30 p.m. Friday, is in the Majestic Industries part of the property, but that part has also spread to the Qualco chemical plant at 225 , rue Passaic.
Lora, who took to Facebook Live overnight with updates, said the fire involved multiple buildings and they expected to lose the entire structure. .
“There have been some bad fires but this is the worst I have ever seen,” he said.
Lora said the fire was still not under control at 12:30 p.m., but had not spread to where the chemicals were. He said the Department of Environmental Protection is on site and will be assessing air quality throughout the night.
“If it had reached the chemicals, there would have been mandatory evacuations,” Lora said. “The fire continues to burn but we have made huge progress.”
He noted that with fire engines running out of gas, they must stop to refuel before continuing their efforts.
Passaic Fire Chief Patrick Trentacost said the building where the fire started, which is along the river, collapsed on itself. It was vacant but used to store plastics, pallets and chlorine.
He also said firefighters were drawing water from the river to supplement the water they use.
The smoke was so heavy it was picked up by National Weather Service radar as it spread through northern New Jersey and off the coast.
Residents were evacuated from the immediate area of the fire and advised anyone nearby to close their windows. Passaic Street from First Street to Main Avenue was closed to traffic along with Route 21 in both directions.
“I ask residents to keep your windows closed while our fire department and emergency responders assess the extent of this fire,” Lora said. “We ask all residents to stay as far away as possible. This is a chemical fire. You will see the color in the sky.
Residents appeared to heed those warnings along Fourth Street as the area was empty around 10:30 p.m.
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Governor Phil Murphy echoed that sentiment on social media, posting that he urged “everyone in Passaic to stay safe as firefighters battle a large eight-alarm fire at a chemical plant off the coast of 21” road.
“If you live nearby, keep your windows closed,” Murphy said. “Pray for the safety of our first responders at the scene.”
Trentacost said about 200 firefighters from Essex, Bergen and Passaic counties responded to the blaze.
“It is by no means under control but we are doing everything we can to contain it,” he said.
Trentacost said his department had been in contact with Passaic Valley Water to provide adequate water pressure and fireboats from other departments were also on the way.
He also said a firefighter was taken to hospital after being hit in the face by debris. He is fine but will remain under observation. There were several slips and falls as firefighters also battle the elements.
Lora said the buildings were empty after 5 p.m. and the site security guard had been tracked down.
The overwhelming smell of smoke and chemicals, especially chlorine, was enough to bring tears to people’s eyes all the way to Wallington after the wind changed around 10 p.m. Large embers and jets of water also float on the river.
Lora stressed it was being assessed but it was important to stay away as it was a chemical fire.
“There are a lot of firefighters, a lot of police coming out to make sure people are evacuated from the immediate area,” Lora said. “Because this is a chemical fire, we are extremely concerned about the health and safety of people in the area.”
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Mutual aid from ‘virtually everywhere’ was at hand and Lora said that ‘at this time’ there have been no reported fatalities, but he is concerned about police, firefighters and the emergency personnel.
Firefighters battle the blaze in freezing conditions. The city was 20 degrees after midnight, but sub-zero wind chills are expected overnight with winds around 15 to 20 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service.
It will be around -10 to -5 degrees tonight through mid to late Saturday morning.
Lora said the city is working to set up shelter in the city for displaced people. Nearby Wallington sent an alert to its residents advising them to stay indoors with windows closed and to be on the lookout for large embers crossing the river. East Rutherford also said “shifting winds may blow smoke from the fire at a chemical plant in Passaic over some areas of the borough” and encouraged residents to stay indoors until further notice. that the fire is brought under control.
Qualco, the site of the fire, produces and distributes chemicals used to treat swimming pools and spas. They have been in the city for over 30 years.
The company housed more than two dozen chemicals onsite in 2020 with daily inventory ranging from 500 pounds of sodium hexametaphosphate to 500,000 pounds of industrial disinfectant trichloroisocyanuric acid, according to the latest data from the ‘Community Right to Know’. on State Hazardous Substances. Department of Environmental Protection.
According to a 2016 safety data sheet on the paspdirect.com website, Qualco had several chemicals on hand, including aluminum chlorohydrate and 1,2-ethanediamine which were ingredients in a product called “Liquid Floc Rite” which deposits non-filterable substances such as algae in the pool. ground to be vacuumed. The report states that it can cause serious eye damage and skin irritation.
The Passaic Fire Department had used the Qualco facility in the 1990s as a training ground to deal with large-scale fires and chemical spills.
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The blaze was reminiscent of the infamous 1985 Labor Day fire that ravaged around 20% of Passaic’s industrial base. The fire incinerated 21 century-old factories and 17 apartment buildings as well as homes in the city’s Lower Dundee area.
Despite the cold temperatures, the January fires have ravaged North Jersey in recent years. A massive fire destroyed the Atlantic Coast Fibers recycling plant on January 30 last year. In that case, firefighters braved the bitter cold overnight and into the next day to extinguish the blaze, which engulfed an entire city block and blanketed the city skyline in smoke. There were at least two explosions at the site.
And two years earlier, on January 30, 2019, the landscape of nearby Elmwood Park changed forever when a 10-alarm fire leveled the historic Marcal Paper Mill. By the end of the night, 30 of the 36 structures at the site were either damaged or destroyed. The Marcal sign that colored the Elmwood Park portion of Route 80 a hue of red for decades was also destroyed.
Katie Sobko is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.