Chemical explosion forces evacuation in Denham Springs

Published 11:45 pm Tuesday, March 30, 2010

DENHAM SPRINGS, La. (AP) — A huge fire broke out at a chemical warehouse Tuesday in southeastern Louisiana, rocketing 55-gallon drums into the sky, forcing the evacuation of about 200 people and pulling in about 100 firefighters, authorities said.

An explosion inside the Coco Resources warehouse triggered the fire about 2 p.m., and two or three other buildings nearby in the industrial section also caught fire, State Fire Marshal Butch Browning said.

Over the next two hours, other barrels of chemicals exploded and smoke could be seen as far away as Baton Rouge, about 20 miles away.

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‘‘They began to rupture and were throwing large debris like shrapnel,’’ said Mark Benton, director of Livingston Parish’s Office of Emergency Preparedness.

‘‘These 55-gallon drums were exploding and were flying through the air and landing in other places and starting fires there,’’ said Lt. Doug Cain, a state police spokesman.

Firefighters managed to contain the flames, Benton said, but because of the intermittent ruptures, they pulled back and were fighting them with hoses from a safe distance. He said they expected to move closer but could not say when.

The cause of the fire won’t be determined until the fire is extinguished, Cain said.

Benton reported two minor injuries: a firefighter who suffered heat exhaustion and an evacuee who suffered an anxiety attack. Benton did not provide further details, but said both people were fine.

Cain said troopers who examined a list of materials kept at the warehouse found them to be a variety of chemicals, mostly in 55-gallon drums stacked on pallets.

Authorities evacuated people within a half-mile radius around the site of the fire, according to state police Sgt. Markus Smith. He said about 200 people were being kept away from their homes in a large trailer park covering about eight streets and in another neighborhood of single-family, brick homes.

Esther Olinde said she initially thought the explosions she heard from her trailer around mid-afternoon Tuesday were fireworks, until a neighbor began banging on her door.

‘‘My neighbor told me, ’Get out, get out.’ They were evacuating everybody. I grabbed my two dogs, two cats, what clothes I could and ran out the door,’’ said Olinde, 38, standing near her car at a nearby elementary school where officials set up a temporary shelter.

At dusk, about two dozen people waited at the shelter for word of when they could return to their homes.

‘‘We want to go home. We want to have a home to go to,’’ said Colleen Villemarette, 49, as she stood at her car, her 18-year-old cat Max howling in the pet carrier perched on the trunk.

Villemarette said she was at work when the fire began.

‘‘My son was at home with my elderly mother. He called me, and he had me on the phone, and I could just tell he was freaking out,’’ she said, describing an evacuation that also involved three dogs and the cat.

Eleven area fire departments were called to respond, along with state police hazardous materials experts and Homeland Security officials.

Benton said there was no respiratory threat, despite the huge plumes of black and gray smoke engulfing the area, and state environmental regulators were on site.

According to a September 2009 Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality inspection report, Coco Resources buys chemicals and sells the chemicals as ‘‘chemical intermediates and reformulations.’’ The company makes soaps for the oilfield, lube oil additives and fuel additives, the report said.

Messages left at a Coco Resources number listed in Baton Rouge were not immediately returned.


Associated Press writers Mary Foster and Alan Sayre contributed to this report.