A chemical warehouse fire that sent a huge plume of chlorine-tinged smoke into the air and forced the evacuation of thousands of residents was slowly being extinguished early Wednesday.
The blaze at the BioLab Inc. warehouse, fueled by 125 tons of dry chlorine pellets used to clean pools and spas, started early Tuesday. The smoke closed Interstate 20 for 20 hours, and roads closer to the warehouse were expected to remain closed well into Wednesday.
"We're dealing with wind issues. We're dealing with other chemicals if they come upon them," Rockdale County sheriff's office spokeswoman Jody Shupe said. "They're still sifting through all the matter that is within the fire."
The blaze in this Atlanta suburb began with "a variety of chemical reactions," Rockdale Fire Chief Henry Argo said. The blaze quickly overwhelmed the warehouse's sprinkler system and spread beyond fire-resistant walls, he said.
Fire officials described the plume as more irritating than dangerous, although the state Environmental Protection Division was monitoring air quality in the area.
Several thousand residents were evacuated within a 1 1/2-mile radius of the warehouse. No one was seriously injured, but the plume of gray, green and white smoke reached a half-mile wide and more than 10 miles long, clearing downtown Conyers and sending at least 300 people to wait out the fire in public school cafeterias.
Nearly 100 nursing home residents were evacuated to schools.
About 40 people went to hospitals complaining of burning eyes and lungs. Most were treated and released.
Ruby Knauers, who was among thousands forced to leave their homes, said the chlorine smell permeated her house.
"You could feel the burning. You started feeling like you wanted to cough or throw up," said Knauers, who lives less than a quarter mile from the warehouse.
State Insurance and Fire Commissioner John Oxendine called it the biggest fire in at least a decade in Georgia and predicted it could smolder for days.
Conyers is 22 miles east of Atlanta. Effects from the fumes were not reported there.
Authorities hoped to allow residents to return to their homes Wednesday evening, but only if the wind and firefighting efforts kept the blaze and smoke at bay.
Although the fire was still under investigation, Argo said Wednesday morning that nothing seemed suspicious.