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As normalcy resumes after fire, Parkersburg residents left with questions

By GUISEPPE SABELLA

Charleston Gazette-Mail

PARKERSBURG, W.Va.  — An untouched warehouse stood between massive flames, a fuel tank and nearby homes when the old Ames plant caught fire Oct. 21.

Chris Gregory lives adjacent to the old tool plant. Rumors of an evacuation came and went, but it made no difference to Gregory. Ten dogs, 40 chickens and a family kept her tied to the house. She was especially worried about the nearby fuel tank.

“I figured, ‘Well, if it hits that, we’re out of here — we’re blown up,’” she said.

A black plume of smoke alerted Gregory’s family to the nearby fire. She said birds took refuge in trees and bushes as flames consumed the 420,000 square foot factory in about two hours.

“It was so black, like a bomb or something went off,” she said.

Her husband, Curtis Goff, said tanks exploded out of the factory and into a nearby field. As firefighters held off the approaching fire, water traveled down the hill and then pooled in Goff’s lawn.

Family members are worried about how their health might be affected in the future. Gregory said she thinks it could be years before the full consequences are known.

Her husband said a noxious smell drifted from the fire, and that statements from public officials did little to comfort his family.

The factory, which burned for more than a week, had stored plastics and other unknown materials.

“Any plastics you burn have toxins,” Goff said. “I don’t give a damn if it’s a milk jug.”

•••

The disaster took place in a county where residents are wary of health hazards and the notion they don’t exist.County residents complained of pollution and illness for years — a result of the chemicals being used at DuPont Co.’s plant in Washington, south of Parkersburg.

Residents feared exposure to C8, a chemical used to make Teflon and other products. Both the company and local officials urged people not to worry.

Most recently, after several major lawsuits and scientific studies, the company agreed to pay nearly $671 million to settle 3,550 personal injury cases.

Considering its past, some Wood County residents found it hard to trust statements about the recent fire.

State and local officials have repeatedly said the local drinking water was unharmed, and that frequent tests point to improving air quality.

As of Friday, state officials said more testing was needed to identify any long-term effects.

The fire’s immediate impacts, however, were clear. One man left the Camden Clark Medical Center with a prescription for acute bronchitis.

According to his discharge paperwork, the bronchitis resulted from “exposure over the last couple days to the local smoke plume.”

Heather Royer, a local teacher, said her students complained of rashes and labored breathing when they returned to school. Royer works at Van Devender Middle School, less than 5 miles from the Ames plant.

She went to work a day after the fire started — a Sunday. She said ashes coated the ground outside, and a plastic odor filled the air inside.

Confusion spread as residents scrambled to secure their homes. Royer donned a face mask and searched for answers, only to find more questions.

“I was told that it’s OK to run the heat; that it was OK to run the AC but not the heat; then told it’s OK to run the heat,” she said. “And then I was told not to run anything, so by Wednesday, I just left.”

Royer left for Toledo, Ohio, and returned after county schools reopened. The fire caused the schools to shut down for several days.

As a member of the Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action Group, Royer said she hopes to keep business owners and government leaders accountable to residents.

She said the factory’s owner, Intercontinental Export Import, failed to keep proper records. The company’s key records were lost in the disaster and, without backup paperwork, officials are unsure what materials burned in the fire.

However, Royer added, better oversight may have prevented the fire from ever happening.

Inspections from nearly a decade ago revealed unlabeled containers, blocked exits and a faulty sprinkler system.

“My main concern is that it’s out of sight, out of mind, now,” Royer said. “And I think a lot of people are going to not have the scare or fear that they had when you see a fire burning, and you smell that smell.”

••••••

With the fire extinguished, life in Parkersburg continued.

Scot Heckert runs a local taxi company and a medical transportation business. The inferno destroyed three of Heckert’s buildings, but firefighters managed to save his office.

He soon created a makeshift workspace and a temporary parking lot for his employees. Heckert also placed a message in the local newspaper, thanking firefighters and fellow residents for their strength.

“I’m just thankful nobody got hurt in the fire,” he said. “When you wake up in the morning and your feet hit the floor, you know God lets you have another day.”

About 2 miles from the heaping piles of charred plastic and metal, life continued for the city’s students.

Stephanie Moore greeted her children outside Fairplains Elementary School last week. The sound of scurrying feet and idling motors had returned.

Moore said she lives about 15 minutes from the school, and she works about 30 minutes from the warehouse. The smell of burning plastic followed her everywhere.

She said the odor triggered her asthma and tightened her chest. Though she would rather stay with family in Braxton County, Moore has a family to support.

“People have to work and still live their lives, even though something is going on,” she said.

Jessica Smarr, a lifelong resident of Parkersburg, said her neighborhood felt like “Grand Central” when firefighters, police and reporters gathered outside the massive fire.

Though her life will continue, Smarr said she remains uncertain about the future.

Smarr wants to know what burned inside the warehouse. She wants to know what kind of debris covered her yard and how her family might be affected.

“I’ve got to hope for the best” she said. “People want to hide in their house and peek between the curtains, but they’re in the house smoking a cigarette. That’s going to kill them.”

 Reach Giuseppe Sabella at [email protected], 304-348-5189 or follow @Gsabella on Twitter.

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