WI families flee fire

BY KRISTINA KNIGHT | Oshkosh, WI | December 20, 2000

Nearly 750 homes were evacuated and some families were still waiting for the go-ahead to return home Wednesday after a boxcar carrying sodium hydrosulfite caught on fire on its way to a chemical plant in Oshkosh, WI.

"We don't know what started the fire," said John Holland, Public Information Officer with the Oshkosh Fire Department.

For three days, firefighters, hazardous materials crews, and local police worked around the clock to put the fire out.

"Sodium hydrosulfite is flammable when it comes into contact with water," Holland said.

Officials think water somehow got into the boxcar carrying 32 totes with the chemical sodium hydrosulfite, a chemical used for bleaching paper. Any time the chemical comes into contact with water it will burn, so using hoses with water was not possible.

"This is only the second incident with the chemical in the United States, so we didn't have a good idea of how to work on the fire," Holland said.

The Clariant Company in North Carolina was transporting the chemical.

If enough water is used, it will neutralize the chemical and put out the fire. This is what worked for the local firefighters. They took each of the 32 totes individually and immersed them in another boxcar filled with water. This changed the chemical concentrate and allowed them to put the fires out. The totes were then taken to the wastewater treatment plant for disposal.

The fire was put out late Monday and some residents are back home now, but many more are waiting at shelters and an airport for the phone call telling them they can go home.

The Salvation Army and American Red Cross provided food, water, and sports drinks to emergency personnel while the Red Cross sheltered about 54 families.

Sunday afternoon, Clariant Chemical company announced it would begin a reimbursement process for the families evacuated because of the fire danger.

By 8 p.m. Monday, nearly half of the evacuated families were allowed to go home. Now the rest are waiting for word that they too can go home.

"We are registering people and transporting them back home, but it's a long process. Emergency teams are still monitoring the homes."

Those who have not been allowed home yet are now meeting in an airline terminal, waiting for their names to be called.

There were only four injuries because of the fire, none of them major. Two police officers and two residents were taken to a local hospital for treatment of respiratory problems. They have already been released.

"This was a very labor intensive event," Holland said, "Our guys worked around the clock."

Now, all that is left for area residents is to wait for that phone call and the simple words, "It's time to go home."

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