Passaic Chemical Fire Update: Fire Under Control, Building Collapsed
With fear of a possible chemical explosion pushing them along, several hundred firefighters battled soaring flames, freezing temperatures and freezing equipment to put down a massive blaze at a Passaic site filled with hazardous substances on Friday and Saturday, helping avoid a larger disaster.
As flames engulfed an estimated 100,000 pounds of chlorine in a building and an official damaged the facilities of Majestic Industries and Qualco Inc. — which makes pool treatment supplies — more than $15 million, the firefighters were able to stop the inferno from spreading to an area where much larger amounts of chlorine and other materials were being stored.
“This fire could have reached the main chemical plant and we could have considered a possible mass evacuation,” said Passaic Mayor Hector Lora, who called the firefighters’ efforts “heroic”.
“They are the reason why this fire did not reach the main chemical plant where the highest concentration of chlorine is,” Lora said.
Lora said he was especially grateful as the COVID-19 pandemic would have made it difficult to house hundreds of evacuated residents. “Where would we take everyone? Lora said. “Where could we appropriately accommodate them in the midst of the pandemic? »
Full-time Passaic firefighters were joined by volunteer firefighters from dozens of surrounding communities to tackle the 11-alarm blaze, which was first called as a car fire shortly after 8 p.m. Friday and eventually sent so many of black smoke in the air that it was detected. on weather radar.
With the blaze threatening to reach the 3 million pounds of potentially hazardous substances stored at the site daily, firefighters raced to douse the flames even as freezing overnight conditions froze pipes and hydrants and made walking on frozen ice dangerous.
On Saturday evening, trails of gray smoke continued to rise from the site, where only a shell remained of a three-story, 300ft by 400ft brick building that had been used to store plastics, pallets and chlorine,” said Passaic Fire Chief Patrick Trentacost.
On Saturday afternoon, firefighters from Ho-Ho-Kus, Oradell, River Edge and Waldwick doused the remaining flames with water from half a dozen fire hoses.
The water froze when it hit the brick facade of the building, draping the glassless window frames in curtains of ice and building frosty caverns inside the scorched envelope.
Firefighters also sent arcs of water over the smoldering ruins from the ladders of several aerial trucks extended into the sky.
Trentacost said three Passaic fire trucks at the scene were frozen in ice on Saturday afternoon as temperatures remained below 20 degrees. Firefighters used flares to prevent the hydrants from freezing.
Passaic Fire Lt. Jonathan Pearson said old industrial buildings along the Passaic River are often at risk of fire.
“It’s the perfect storm,” Pearson said. “It’s nice and clean, there’s no moisture in the air, something ignites and you get a bit of wind in there and it blows off. Especially old mills like this that are saturated with liquids and fat…by the time you get there, you’re already behind the eight ball.”
Trentacost said on Saturday a fire remained in the basement under the collapsed roof. “It was the total collapse of a three-story building,” he said.
Lora said only one worker, a security guard, was in the building when the fire broke out. That person was unharmed, he said. None of the other company employees were injured.
“A firefighter was sent to hospital with a facial laceration,” Trentacost said. “He was treated and released. We had about 14-16 firefighters who slipped and fell with bruises, twisted ankles – all minor.
Adding to the firefighting effort, the Passaic Fire Department has recently battled COVID infections, which appear to be declining after a turbulent holiday season in which nearly half of the department’s 106 members fell sick.
“If this fire had happened two weeks ago, it would have been much more difficult,” Lora said.
Authorities won’t be able to begin investigating the cause of the blaze until the blaze is completely extinguished, he said.
In a statement posted on its website, Qualco thanked first responders and agencies involved in the firefighting. “We greatly appreciate your efforts and how you eased a very difficult situation,” the statement read. “Qualco has been operating safely in Passaic for over 30 years and is committed to serving its customers in the pool and spa industries.”
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According to a Dun & Bradstreet business directory, Qualco, Inc. has 50 employees and generates $25.45 million in sales.
The 3 million pounds of potentially hazardous substances often stored at Qualco’s site on an average day range from industrial disinfectants to bleaches, according to a 2020 inventory list sent to state regulators.
The Passaic Fire Department had used the Qualco facility in the 1990s to train to deal with large-scale fires and chemical spills.
Majestic Industries made furniture and other items for gaming venues, such as casinos, restaurants and pool halls, Lora said.
A state Treasury Department database indicates that Qualco was incorporated in 1986 and Majestic Industries in 1998. Peter Ferentinos was listed as president of both companies and John Ferentinos as vice president of Qualco.
A man who said he was Peter Ferentinos, reached on Saturday at his home in Smithtown, New York, said: ‘I can’t say anything. You know more about the fire than I do. Thank you,’ then hung up . .
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The state Department of Environmental Protection remained on site Saturday to monitor air quality. During the fire, the DEP conducted traveling air monitoring for chlorine and found that the results were within acceptable levels.
They were aided by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, which set up five air monitors to measure chlorine and other contaminants, and provided real-time data to the DEP.
What was stored there? :Passaic chemical fire site housed up to 3 million pounds of potentially hazardous substances
Firefighting in freezing conditions:Cold, wind, ice, lack of water among the obstacles for the firefighters who brought the Marcal fire under control
At the height of the fire, large embers began billowing in the sky from the site across the Passaic River south to Wallington, sparking small fires in the yards. Wallington Police Chief Carmello Imbruglia said Wallington firefighters tried to maintain a wall of water sprayed over the Passaic to prevent embers from landing in the yards. He said one ember that landed was a foot long.
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. Firefighters braved the bitter cold overnight and into the next day to douse the blaze, which engulfed an entire city block and blanketed the city skyline in smoke. There were at least two explosions.
“Last year, around this time, we had one of the biggest fires in city history at the recycling plant,” Lora said. “This time of year always brings challenges. I encourage people to exercise caution when using space heaters or when plugging objects into outlets using extension cords.”
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.
U.S. Representative Bill Pascrell Jr.’s office said it is reviewing any federal assistance that may be available for Passaic. “Winter fires are some of the worst and most terrifying our communities face,” Pascrell said in a statement. “I prayed for our neighbors in Passaic.”
Writers Katie Sobko and Abbott Koloff contributed to this story.