By SAVANNAH DEMPSEY
Massive clouds of thick, black smoke filled the air early Sunday morning as flames ravaged the Lonza Inc. chemical plant, 3500 Trenton Ave., in the city.
JOHN NEVILL JR./Sun-Gazette Correspondent
Two city firefighters work to extinguish flames at Lonza Inc., a chemical plant on Trenton Avenue, Sunday morning.
As spectators stood in awe of the smoke and flames, many noticed something was missing - the wail of emergency sirens.
The blaze began on the northeast corner of the facility in Building 13. According to Lonza officials, the building is a non-hazardous manufacturing area, and the fire posed no risk to the nearby community.
According to the company's website, the city plant "offers chemical products for a wide range of applications, including water treatment, food additives, personal care products and household and industrial cleaners."
Though there was a shift of employees working at the time, everyone made it out safely, and no one was injured in the blaze. That was a lucky break, according to one fire official.
"Chemical manufacturing facilities are one of the worst places to have a fire. We were very fortunate today," Eric Smith, platoon chief with the city's bureau of fire, said later Sunday.
The flames took about five hours for firefighters to extinguish. Luckily, Lonza's own fire brigade jumped into quick action and helped the city squad.
"Their fire brigade initiated the attack and worked with us through the incident," Smith said.
Though the dark smoke terrified some onlookers, officials maintain that the color was created as flames ate through the building's roofing materials.
"The fire was not involved with any hazardous chemicals. The fire posed no threat to the community at large," said Marvin Kuzo, Lonza plant manager.
While Lonza's internal deluge system warned workers to evacuate, plant officials did not turn on their community warning sirens.
"If there had been a threat to the community, we have a separate siren that would have sounded. We decided not to activate those sirens at that time," Kuzo said.
A shelter-in-place request for those living west of Lycoming Creek, north of the Susquehanna River, south of Hillside Avenue and West Fourth Street and east of Antlers Lane, was released by the Lycoming County Department of Public Safety and received by the Williamsport Sun-Gazette at 6:19 a.m. It stated that residents should remain indoors, turn off air
conditioning and close their windows.
The order was canceled about half an hour later.
Platoon Chief Vince Rundio explained that the release was sent in preparation, in case he needed to order a shelter-in-place alert. The second release canceled the first.
"The shelter-in-place order was released to the media before it was released to the general public. Someone was listening on the scanner and put that information on Facebook, but the order was never actually activated. All that information was sent out in preparation in case I needed it, rather than waiting until the last minute," Rundio said.
He explained that in between the first and second news releases, officials determined that the fire posed no threat to the general public and the city did not activate its outdoor warning sirens to alert those in the neighborhood.
Some worried that the company's railroad boxcars, which store chemicals, gas and oil, were dangerously close to the fire. However, Kuzo quelched the rumor, saying the cars were "not in any danger at all."
Investigators still are determining the cause of the blaze and the amount of property damaged.
For many locals, the fire brought to mind another chemical plant emergency that sent dozens to seek medical treatment.
On Jan. 5, 1995, thick white clouds rose from the plant during a chlorine gas leak. Though workers managed to shut off the leak within 20 minutes, the cloud of gas hovered over the area for hours. The cloud was estimated by state police to be about two miles long and half a mile wide. Locals flooded the emergency room of the Williamsport Regional Medical Center seeking medical help after feeling side effects of the chlorine, which included burning eyes, noses and skin.