An explosion at a Belle chemical plant provided locals a vivid reminder of the potential danger looming over their town.
“I think sometimes people kind of get complacent, and think, ‘Hey, we’ve been good for a long time,’” said Belle Mayor David Fletcher. “’It’ll stay good.’”
Recent years of relative quiet were shattered at 10:02 p.m. Tuesday, when the blast at Optima Chemical’s facility on the Chemours site killed plant worker John Gillenwater, 42, of Hurricane, and injured three others. Preliminary information indicates a 1,200-gallon metal dryer became overpressurized during a chemical drying product operation, according to Optima. The material in the dryer was a compound used for sanitation.
Response closely followed plans formed in 2015 and updated annually by the Kanawha Putnam Emergency Planning Committee, officials said. But sirens took longer to sound than some neighbors and responders preferred.
Eight minutes after the explosion, Belle fire Chief David Armstrong arrived at the plant. An on-site fire brigade quickly briefed him and Belle volunteer firefighters on the chemicals involved, how they should respond and necessary precautions needed inside.
Responders called Metro 911 to issue a shelter-in-place declaration while they gathered further details on the blast, said C.W. Sigman, director of Kanawha County Homeland Security. Responders also activated an emergency operations center.
Upon learning methanol was fueling the flames, Fletcher said, responders opted to let the fire burn out as they cooled nearby structures to slow its spread. Officials lifted the shelter-in-place order at roughly 2:30 a.m., long after the flames were doused. Responders wanted to ensure there was not another incident, Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said.
Neighbors’ nerves were rattled.
Matt Crouch, his wife and their 1-year-old son were in bed watching television when the explosion shook their home a half-mile from the plant. They moved to the area in 2016.
“We thought a car ran into our house, so we looked outside and nothing was there. Then we were thinking maybe an earthquake,” Crouch said. “Everything was shaking, it was like nothing I’d ever felt.”
Crouch and some neighbors set off to get closer to the plant to learn what happened. They turned around when they saw the flames. As they made their way home, they heard sirens.
“It was as we were walking back, there was a weird smell in the air — definitely not normal, but we had no idea what it was — and then the sirens went off,” Crouch said. “It took a few minutes. Quite some time, in a situation like that. More time than I’d want it to take.”
Linda and Marty Green, who live off Kanawha Street about a mile from the plant, shared a similar recollection.
“We would hope to get an alarm a little sooner. There was a big boom this time, but what if not?” Marty Green said. “If we could get the alarm a little sooner, or some kind of warning we know works, that’d go a long way.”
Not all sirens outside the plant worked, Sigman said. Officials are working to learn what went wrong, Sigman said. A test is planned for later this month.
“When we pushed the button [for the sirens] at the beginning of the month, they worked,” Sigman said. “Really, the sirens are only meant to be heard if you’re outside, not inside a home. Today, there are so many different ways to get information — broadcast media, the [KC Ready] app, social media — the sirens shouldn’t be the only source.”
The shelter-in-place alert came on calls to landlines and text alerts to cellphones in the area, Sigman said.
Before those calls and texts came, Crouch said, he returned home to find some neighbors packing their cars and telling others to evacuate. Crouch tuned in to a police scanner in an effort to get clear directions.
“It was chaos, and we had no idea what we should have been doing,” Crouch said. “It definitely worries me that there’s no immediate source of information on what to do. When there’s not any information being released initially by anyone official, people panic, and that’s exactly what happened.”
A former Riverside High School teacher, Crouch knew what it meant to shelter in place because of drills at the school. But he realized Tuesday night he didn’t have materials on hand at home to seal windows and vents, if needed.
Duct tape and plastic sheeting should be used to seal cracks around doors, windows and vents, according to the emergency planning committee website. Other shelter-in-place directives include closing and locking all windows and exterior doors; turning off fans, furnaces and air conditioning; closing fireplace dampers; and gathering in an above-ground interior room without windows.
“We’re lucky this time,” Crouch said. “It wasn’t something airborne that could have gotten in. I should have known [to prepare], but it wasn’t something I’d thought about really happening like this. We weren’t prepared at all. If the day came and it was, God forbid, something worse, I don’t know how we’d get out. I don’t know if we’d make it.”
Training in shelter-in-place protocols has slipped, helping feed a sense of complacency, Sigman said.
“This year [COVID-19] made meetings in general difficult,” Sigman said. “But we’re making arrangements now to get back to those, and hopefully soon. We’d be remiss not to after what happened this week.”
Fletcher plans next month to mail residents an informational packet he’s compiling. He plans for the packet to include details on sheltering in place, evacuation, emergency protocols and alert systems.
“I think that’s something we need right now. We want to be transparent about everything, and be sure individuals are educated on what different things they should prepare for,” Fletcher said.
Meanwhile, Crouch worries about raising his son in Chemical Valley.
“We don’t know what’s in the air, what’s in the water, what’s being made over there and what chemicals exactly they use,” Crouch said. “It’s frightening to think about.”