CONYERS, Ga. — A huge fire broke out in a chemical warehouse Tuesday morning, setting off multiple explosions and prompting the evacuation of hundreds of residents.
The fire in the warehouse owned by BioLab, which makes chemicals for pools and cleaning products, was reported about 4:30 a.m. ET. Multiple explosions could be seen and heard as the fire spread through the warehouse.
Plumes of gray, green and white smoke prompted evacuations of homes and businesses within a 1.5-mile radius in Conyers, a suburb of about 10,000 some 20 miles east of downtown Atlanta.
“You could feel the burning. You started feeling like you wanted to cough or throw up,” said Ruby Knauers, who was among the evacuees.
Initial estimates put the number of evacuees in the hundreds, but more precise figures were not available. By late morning, more than 100 people were at two schools that were set up as temporary shelters.
WXIA: Firefighters slowly gaining control
Bruce Mason of NBC affiliate WXIA-TV reported at 2:55 p.m. ET that firefighters “are starting to get a handle” on the blaze. Mason reported that backhoe and front-end loader operators were at the scene digging up hot spots and otherwise working to control the fire.
Hospitals reported treating at least nine people who had trouble breathing or suffering because of irritation from the chemicals. People still in the area were advised to close windows and turn off air conditioning.
State officials predicted the fire could burn into the evening, but firefighters said the blaze had been contained to the warehouse.
It was not immediately clear how it started or what chemicals were burning, although authorities said chlorine was one of the chemicals involved, and its strong smell hung in the air.
“You could smell it. It looked like a fog rolling in,” said Jeff Rutherford, who left his home with his wife and sought refuge at a nearby high school. “I just hope the cats are still kicking when we get home.”
Chlorine is “certainly dangerous to people with respiratory conditions in particular,” said Buzz Weiss, spokesman of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.
Monty Eckles, vice president of BioLab, apologized for the disruption. “There were no employees injured — that’s what’s most important to us,” he said.
The fire slowed the morning commute into Atlanta. Several roads around the BioLab plant were closed for at least two hours. Interstate 20, a main thoroughfare into Atlanta, was also closed during rush hour as the smoke cut visibility.
The Covington Municipal Airport, about 10 miles from Conyers, also was evacuated.
© 2013 msnbc.com