An 11-alarm fire in Passaic this weekend at a chemical plant packed with hazardous substances could have turned into one of the most catastrophic chemical disasters in the region in recent history, fire officials said.
The crisis was averted due largely to the quick response Friday night by over 200 firefighters from some 100 neighboring towns who descended upon Majestic Industries and the Qualco chemical plant — which makes pool treatment supplies — to beat the blaze.
With the fear of a potential chemical explosion goading them on, they battled soaring flames, frigid temperatures and iced equipment and prevented the fire from spreading to an area where as much as 3 million pounds of potentially hazardous substances are stored on an average day, according to state data.
The fire has been extinguished, and operations have been reduced at the scene. A small crew remained Sunday morning for a "fire watch" — two engines and a ladder flowing water on any hot spots. "As we get deeper into the debris, I'm anticipating a flare-up," Passaic Fire Chief Patrick Trentacost said Sunday morning.
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Gov. Phil Murphy at a Sunday press conference called the fire "horrendous" and gave "profuse thanks to every single firefighter who arrived on the scene. ... It could have been a lot worse," he said.
The flames engulfed about 100,000 pounds of chlorine in one building, and an official put damages to the facilities at more than $15 million. Only a shell remained of a three-story, 300-by-400-foot brick building that had been used to store plastics, pallets and some chlorine, Trentacost said.
Investigators are still trying to determine how the fire started, he said, adding, "We are focusing on the upper floors and the rear of the building."
The fire prompted calls for residents to close windows and shelter in place. Qualco Inc. had about two dozen chemicals at its large Passaic Street plant, ranging from industrial disinfectants to bleaching agents, according to a 2020 inventory list sent to state regulators.
Trentacost stressed that there is no longer any health threat to the public and said the advisory for the public to keep their windows shut had been lifted. But the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection will continue to monitor the air quality in the area, both he and Murphy said.
The Coast Guard was evaluating the Passaic River, Mayor Hector Lora said.
Lora said Sunday afternoon that the air had been deemed safe by health officials, but the water quality in the river was still being assessed. The city drinking water is safe, he said.
The heavy smoke from the raging fire could be seen and smelled for miles around. Kassim Washington, who is employed by the Department of Public Works in Passaic, was in Lodi with his son Friday night when they saw black clouds of smoke billowing into the sky.
"The smoke was so thick you could see it from Lodi," he said. "We rushed home and saw the fire. It was a few blocks away from our house." He went to the scene to help put up barricades and put out salt so that the firefighters wouldn't slip on the ice.
"I can't imagine what could have happened had that other building caught on fire," he said, noting that the chemical plant is less than five minutes from the Alfred Speer Village public housing complex, where hundreds of residents live. "There's a lot to be thankful for."
‘The company will survive’: Qualco chemical plant spared from worst of Passaic fire
Lora credited the firefighters' quick and powerful response with preventing a deadly situation.
"They worked non-stop and were completely focused on preventing it from spreading," he said. "I was in complete awe watching them work against the frigid temperatures and challenges with the water pressure and apparatus. They were able to contain the fire and prevent a much more dangerous situation. I believe they preserved many lives and protected the lungs of our residents as well."
This isn't the first big fire Passaic has faced. The largest blaze in modern Passaic history was the Labor Day Fire of 1985, which began in a vacant factory on Eighth Street, according to Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College. It destroyed 20% of Passaic's industrial base, including 21 century-old factories and 17 apartment buildings, as well as homes in the Lower Dundee area of the city.
A massive fire destroyed the Atlantic Coast Fibers recycling plant on Jan. 30 last year. Firefighters braved the brutal cold overnight and into the next day to put out the fire, which engulfed an entire city block and veiled the city’s skyline with smoke. There were at least two explosions.
And two years earlier, on Jan. 30, 2019, the landscape of nearby Elmwood Park was changed forever when a 10-alarm blaze leveled the historic Marcal Paper plant. By the end of the night, 30 of the 36 structures on the site were either damaged or destroyed. The famous Marcal sign that for decades colored the Elmwood Park portion of Route 80 a tint of red was destroyed as well.
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Passaic, which thrived as an industrial center for textiles from the late 1800s through the mid-1950s, has an array of aging factory buildings along the river that are remnants from that era. The industrial building where this weekend's fire started was built in 1906, Lora said.
Although many of the buildings have been repurposed for other uses, some of them are not up to code, said Corbett, the fire expert, who is a Waldwick resident. "It could be that they don't have sprinkler systems or that if they have them, they don't work," he said. "Fires such as this one raise questions about the kind of fire protections these old complexes have."
Because of the amount of destruction at this fire scene, it's possible that investigators will never learn the exact cause of the fire, he said, likening it to pulling a needle from a haystack. "Unless they can find video footage from inside the building or eyewitness accounts, they may not ever know what caused it," Corbett said.
The three-story building where the fire raged was an older mill building with wooden floors and a wooden roof, so when it burned, it created radiant heat and ferocity, he said.
"It also generates a lot of wooden embers, so there's the possibility that they break into smaller pieces, embers the size of your fist, that can fly across the river and start secondary fires," Corbett said. "That's what happened."
Residents in nearby towns took to social media Friday night at the height of the fire to complain about embers landing on their properties. But Trentacost said that with wind gusts of 20 miles per hour, that had been anticipated.
"We dispatched crews to every surrounding town to do ember patrol," he said. We had companies standing by across the river going into people's yards putting out embers. We had that under control early on in the fire. There's no concern whatsoever at this point."
Demolition of the building began Saturday night and will occur in several stages in the next 24 to 36 hours.
Trentacost said he was grateful for the mutual aid from the surrounding communities, especially because about 15% of his firefighters are out with COVID-19.
"We got hit hard by COVID," he said. "One hundred towns plus sent representation to cover the firehouse. The mayor was on scene for over 24 hours, making sure they were fed. The police chief was there the whole time. I'm the fire chief for 18 years. I couldn't ask for anything more organized."
"We are well equipped and well trained to handle this," Trentacost added. "We kept the main building safe. It didn't get impacted. It could have been one of the biggest disasters in the country. I can't tell you how proud I am of my firefighters. They dug in deep with ice on their gloves. We took a stand and we won."
Staff Writers Scott Fallon, Gene Myers and Steve Janoski contributed to this article.
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This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Passaic fire at Qualco could have been a chemical disaster