Wisconsin Chemical Plant Explosions Force Evacuations

May 13, 2009

A chemical plant fire continued to burn May 12 in the south-central Wisconsin community of Columbus where dozens of neighbors were forced to evacuate their homes.

A series of explosions was heard May 11 about 8 p.m. at Columbus Chemical Industries as firefighters were called to the burning plant.

Dodge County Sheriff Todd Nehls said Tuesday firefighters were withdrawn from battling the fire after one large explosion Monday night.

“I was 200 feet away in my car and it rocked my car,” Nehls said.

Officials then decided to let the chemicals burn up and the fire extinguish itself.

Tuesday morning, roads leading to the plant were closed, including U.S. Highway 151, the main road from Madison. Columbus, a city of about 5,000, is about 25 miles northwest of the state capital.

Nehls said residents within a half-mile radius of the plant remained evacuated Tuesday.

About 150 emergency responders were at the scene late Monday, but no serious injuries were reported. At least two firefighters were being checked at a local hospital.

Dodge County authorities used an emergency notification system to call other residents in the Columbus and Beaver Dam areas and tell them to stay inside and keep their windows closed because of smoke from the fire.

An emergency shelter was set up at Columbus Senior Center, where some of the approximate 144 evacuees spent the night.

Kelly Holder, 47, who lives about a half-mile from the plant, said she didn’t hear an explosion, but she and her husband were watching television about 8 p.m. when she noticed fire trucks streaming into the neighborhood. She was standing outside about an hour and a half later when emergency officials walked up and told her to evacuate.

“We just got the bare necessities” and went to her sister’s home a few blocks away, Holder said. About midnight, they were told to evacuate again. The family spent the rest of the night in a hotel in Columbus.

Dr. David Gerber says he evacuated seven dogs and five cats from his veterinary clinic in Columbus and took them to his home. Gerber says the animals will be transferred to a clinic in nearby Beaver Dam.

Nearby resident John Edwards, a part-time worker at the plant, said it has a lot of flammable material.

Things seemed normal as he left work around 4 p.m., he said, but the explosions later “sounded like thunder, a long clap of thunder.”

According to the company Web site, Columbus Chemical Industries manufactures high purity acids and salts, analytical and production solutions for the pharmaceutical, semiconductor and electronics industries, among others.

A phone call by The Associated Press to the company went unanswered Tuesday.

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