Potential for explosion in Winston-Salem fertilizer plant fire still possible

Fire at fertilizer plant in Winston-Salem prompts thousands of evacuations
Published: Feb. 2, 2022 at 7:40 AM EST
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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WITN) - Firefighters in Winston-Salem say conditions have not improved overnight as the fire at the fertilizer plant continues to burn.

In a 4:30 a.m. update Wednesday morning, firefighters say the possibility of an explosion is still there. Winston-Salem Fire Chief Trey Mayo says an explosion would likely happen within 36 hours of the fire.

Crews were still monitoring the plant. About 6,500 people living within one mile of the plant were asked to evacuate and they are encouraged to stay away from their homes until at least 7 p.m.

The evacuation due to the chemicals at the site exacerbating the already dangerous fire. However, Mayo says the estimates can change based on more information becoming available.

The fire started Monday night.
The fire started Monday night.(WRAL/NBC)

Authorities drove through neighborhoods and knocked on doors asking residents to leave within a one-mile radius of the Weaver Fertilizer Plant on the northside of Winston-Salem, where the fire started Monday night.

“We heard the explosion. It shook our house,” said Michelle Shepherd, who evacuated her home near the plant. “We weren’t sure what it was. I opened up my front door and the entire sky was nothing but orange. I could see the flames shooting over the trees.”

When speaking of the severity of the Weaver Fertilizer Plant fire and potential for explosion, Mayo evoked the explosion in West, Texas in April of 2013 at the West Fertilizer Company. Fifteen people died during that explosion, 160 more were injured, and 150 buildings were damaged and destroyed.

Crews were called to the Weaver Fertilizer Plant in Winston-Salem late Monday night.
Crews were called to the Weaver Fertilizer Plant in Winston-Salem late Monday night.(Source: Winston-Salem Fire Department)

Most of the campus of Wake Forest University is just outside the evacuation zone. The university urged students living in dormitories to stay indoors and keep windows closed.

Bright orange flames could be seen shooting into the sky along with thick plumes of smoke as lights from fire trucks and other first responder vehicles surrounded the fully engulfed building. The evacuation area included about 6,500 people in 2,500 homes, the Winston-Salem Fire Department said.

“We want to make sure that right now we’re evacuating everybody in this one-mile radius,” Winston-Salem Battalion Chief Patrick Grubbs told reporters early Tuesday. “There is still a potential for explosion.”

At least 90 firefighters, along with emergency personnel from other agencies, fought the fire for about two hours Monday night, but they had to retreat because of the large volume of ammonium nitrate on the site, Winston-Salem Fire Chief Trey Mayo said. The fire department said that firefighters could not flow enough water to be reasonably certain of keeping it cool enough to prevent a detonation.

Less than two miles away, Wake Forest canceled classes for Tuesday and opened a campus building for students and staff who live off-campus but had to relocate. The university said only one campus housing building was within the evacuation zone.

The Forsyth Correctional Center, a minimum security prison with a capacity for about 250 inmates, also is in the evacuation area.

Winston-Salem officials said a shelter has been set up at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds.

The fertilizer plant was closed when the fire started and no employees were inside, local media outlets reported.

The company said on its website that it has operated the Winston-Salem plant since 1940.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.