Firefighters face challenges after chemical plant fire in western N.C.

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POLK COUNTY, N.C. (WSPA) – A western North Carolina fire department said it is still recovering nearly a month after helping fight a fire at a chemical plant.

Columbus Fire and Rescue was one of several departments called to the American Zinc Plant in the Mooresboro area of Rutherford County when it went up in flames in April.  

The fire chief said his department could be out tens of thousands of dollars because of all the damage done to several firefighters’ suits and other equipment. 

7News spoke with Chief Tony Priester about the challenges his small department faces.

Seven members of Priester’s department helped fight the massive chemical fire at American Zinc last month and he said the fire took a huge toll on their equipment and they’re in need of help to make sure they’re best equipped to protect their community.

Priester remembers what they faced when they arrived at the scene. 

“It was shooting 35,40, 50 feet in the air,” Priester said.

As tall as the flames were on the night of April 28 at the American Zinc Plant in Rutherford County, Priester said he and six of his firefighters knew they were facing a different kind of danger even before they arrived to see it in person.

“The thing that concerned us on the way down as we talked was this was a chemical plant and there’s more hazards than we’re used to,” Priester said.

As the zinc processing plant burned, four of Priester’s firefighters were called to go inside knowing the potential toxic substances in the air like sulfuric acid and zinc.

They were properly equipped with oxygen masks.

Eight hours later, Columbus fire and all the other departments were told to pull back because it became too dangerous.

“Hazmat response came down and started doing monitoring and said the levels they were seeing were unsafe in gear and out of gear so they started pulling us back,” Priester recalled. 

It wasn’t until they were back at the station when Priester said they noticed discoloration and other signs something wasn’t right with their suits and equipment.

“Within a couple days velcro threads started to come loose, threads that gear is sewn together with coming loose, discoloration of their boots. They were in that ankle deep, that acid, or whatever that chemical was,” he said. 

Priester said seven complete sets of gear including boots, turnout pants, turnout coats, gloves, flash hoods, face masks, and helmets have since been decommissioned until the department’s insurance company can determine if they are a total loss.

That’s roughly $17,000 in equipment, according to Priester.

“We’re a small department on a small budget,” he explained.

The insurance and financial challenges may be the least of their worries. 

Possible exposure to the chemicals at the scene could bring even bigger issues.

“We had our bloodwork done to check for metals, zinc, stuff like that in our blood,” he said. 

Despite the challenges, Priester said if the same situation happened again and knowing what he knows now he’d still send help. 

“We’re a brotherhood. We’ve got each other’s back. If they called today we would load up and go,” Priester said. 

Priester is expecting results from the blood tests for him and his firefighters next week. 

If you would like to donate to help keep the first responders properly equipped, click here to visit their website.

Columbus Fire is not the only department dealing with equipment issues related to the zinc fire.

Forest City firefighters also responded to the scene.

The department’s only ladder truck had to be decommissioned as did all of it’s equipment. 

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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