Investigation continues into Symrise fire

Nov. 18—As the state fire marshal continues investigating the explosive chemical fire Nov. 7 at the Symrise plant on Colonel's Island, local fire-rescue officials remain thankful for the outside support in containing the massive blaze.

The powerful blast could have been worse as Glynn County Fire-Rescue officials noted during a post-fire briefing last week with U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-1.

One worst case scenario would have involved the flames reaching several hydrogen tanks at the plant, where the German-based company manufactures fragrances and perfumes, acting county fire-rescue chief Vincent DiCristofalo said.

The tanks were "far away" from the tanks of pinene hydrogen that caught fire amid several explosions at around 3:56 a.m. that day, DiCristofalo noted. Had the tanks been threatened, county officials might have had to greatly expand the 1-mile perimeter evacuation area for the incident, he said.

"From talking to the hazmat experts on the scene, if one of those were to go off, it would have affected an area within five miles," DiCristofao told The News on Thursday.

"It would have left a crater," one county fire-rescue battalion chief told Carter during the Nov. 8 briefing at fire-rescue headquarters.

At least three explosions occurred within several tanks containing pinane peroxide, a hydrogen peroxide mixture. County firefighters battled the predawn fire for several hours before the Savannah and Jacksonville, Fla., fire departments arrived with dedicated hazmat teams to help address the complicated circumstances of a fire involving chemicals.

County firefighters exhausted 1.5 million gallons of water stored on-site that morning before withdrawing to await the reinforcements. The bulk of the chemical fire burned itself out.

With backup from the neighboring departments, firefighters went back in and doused the remaining threat with a hazardous materials firefighting foam known as AFFF.

By dusk, the fire was declared under control.

The fire prompted the evacuation of several communities in southern Glynn and northern Camden counties within a one-mile perimeter of the plant. Favorable northerly winds sent potentially harmful smoke from the fire into the marsh and away from the nearest communities, firefighters said.

Smoke fueled by hydrogen peroxide gasses could have potentially caused respiratory and other health problems, officials said.

While Glynn County's department has 20 hazmat certified firefighters, having the dedicated hazmat teams from the larger neighboring cities proved immensely invaluable, DiCristofalo said.

"Those are much larger departments with full-time hazmat teams," he said. "The response that they provided to us with personnel and equipment resources was impressive. The fact that Jacksonville was able to cross state lines and help, with Savannah getting down here as the regional hazmat team, and then synchronizing all that together was a model of how a unified command should work."

Firefighters had remained mindful of the devastation potential of the fire reaching the hydrogen tanks, DiCristofalo said.

"There were hydrogen storage tanks that were not affected at all by the incident," he said. "But if the incident didn't start to come under control, we would have to put protective measures in place to ensure those tanks were cooled."

The state fire marshal's office continues to investigate the incident. No timeline has been set for when the investigation might be completed.

"Our team is currently still analyzing data and waiting on all portions of the investigation to be completed by all parties before we release a final report," said Weston Burleson, director of communications for the state Office of Commissioner of Insurance and Fire Safety. "The explosion appears to be accidental in nature, but we are not yet ready to release an official determination at this time."