CHURCH HILL — Approximately 200 nearby residents and 100 employees of Holliston Mills were evacuated Thursday afternoon as a result of a chemical fire that started on a plant loading dock where barrels of nitrocellulose wetted with alcohol were located.
No serious injuries were reported, although four firefighters were transported to Holston Valley Medical Center by Hawkins County EMS as a precaution due to possible chemical vapor inhalation.
Hawkins County Emergency Management Agency Director Jamie Miller told the Times News that the primary chemical involved in the fire was nitrocellulose wetted with alcohol, although there were other chemicals present in inks and glues.
The plant, located at 905 Holliston Mills Road on the west end of Church Hill, manufactures coated cloth for publishing and packaging, industrial, and security products.
Miller told the Times News that a large fire was reported at the plant at 12:29 p.m. Within minutes, a huge black plume of smoke could be seen for several miles on the other side of Surgoinsville.
Approximately 100 employees and everyone living within a half-mile radius of the plant were evacuated due to a chemical inhalation hazard. Miller noted that there was initially an explosion hazard as well.
Church Hill Police Chief Chad Mosley said approximately 200 people were evacuated from their homes. A Red Cross shelter was established at Ridgeview Baptist Church, and another shelter was opened at the Church Hill Rescue Squad.
By around 3 p.m., the evacuation was lifted except for the Holliston Mills property.
As of 4 p.m., the fire was knocked down except for a few hot spots. HAZMAT personnel were on the scene attempting to contain contamination and determine the level of chemical runoff. The scene was cleared by fire personnel as of 6:30 p.m.
“We did have a large amount of fire when we got here and weren’t even able to set up suppression,” Miller said. “We just had to pull everyone back until it burned down to a level we could deal with it. The cause hasn’t been determined and no one from the plant has been able to give an exact cause. It started in a loading dock area. To my knowledge, there wasn’t any (tractor-trailers) at that dock, but there were barrels of chemicals.”
Every fire department in Hawkins County was dispatched to the scene, as well as Kingsport Fire and Rescue, TEMA, the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation (TDEC), the regional HAZMAT team from Kingsport, and the American Red Cross. Every law enforcement agency in the county participated in the evacuation.
“HAZMAT was here initially to identify if the chemicals had completely burned,” Miller said. “Also they’re dealing with some of the runoff situation, but TDEC will be primary on that.”
The biggest obstacle for firefighters was getting water to the plant, a feat they accomplished using a relay of tanker trucks.
Miller added, “It takes a massive amount of manpower to do an operation like this.”
Miller said plant officials hadn’t been able to access the facility to assess damage as of Thursday night and don’t yet know when the factory will reopen. A contractor has been contacted to perform the cleanup of hazardous materials at the fire scene.